Computers can change behaviour
Can computers get us to act in a more healthy way? Of course, says BJ Fogg, head of the Persuasive Technology Lab at Stanford. We can learn from Google, Facebook, or Twitter.
Since the early 1990s, BJ Fogg has reflected on how behaviour can be governed with the help of computers; in 2002 he published his first trendsetting book, Persuasive Technology – Using Computers to Change What We Think and Do. He also produced a model for how we can change our behaviour.
“Start from a habit people already have and build on it in many small steps” is one piece of advice.
He takes Google for example: at the beginning just a search engine, quick and good; yet through several phases we’ve been prompted to make use of even more services: Gmail, maps, translation, file storage, and more.
Fogg was one of the main speakers at the Persuasive 2012 Conference on June 6-8, which was arranged by Magnus Bång and Eva Ragnemalm of the Department of Computer and Information Science at Linköping University (LiU). The conference convened over a hundred participants from around the world, almost equal numbers women and men. The theme was “Design for health and safety”. They debated IT solutions to get sedentary children to move more, or systems that help us choose more nutritious food, to name just two examples.
Fogg’s model requires three things to produce desired behaviour: motivation, opportunity, and a trigger – something that sets the behaviour going. A simple example: If the telephone rings (a trigger) and I don’t answer, it depends on whether I want to (motivation is lacking) or I can’t (opportunity is lacking – I’m in the shower or in a meeting). If any of the three are missing, I don’t behave in the expected way – I don’t answer the telephone.
“We can learn a lot about human behaviour without coding a single line. We just have to be observant,” Fogg said.
If a service is developed and people don’t behave as expected, he has a range of advice:
“Investigate which aspect hasn’t been supplied. Does the trigger not work? Many people are tired of barrages of email and view them as spam. Emailing a message won’t work for them. Do they have the opportunity to perform the behaviour? Keep in mind that people can be as motivated as they like, but nothing happens if they don’t have the opportunity. Concentrate on a trigger that works and making it that much easier for the recipient to perform the behaviour.
When the desired behaviour is set in, we can move on to more difficult things with the properly chosen triggers.”
But using small steps – baby steps – is also valid.
“When a person is properly motivated – for example, to eat right and get a little more exercise – we can introduce a more difficult change in behaviour, like making an appointment with a personal trainer,” he explained.
But if Fogg puts effort into studying changes in behaviour, one of the other main speakers at the conference – Harri Oinas-Kukkonen, professor of Information Systems at the University of Oulu, Finland – has another approach. For him, the concept of persuasion doesn’t deal just with producing desired behaviour, but also with changing attitudes.
“To change behaviour sustainably over the long term, you also have to change attitudes,” he believes.
He also has models for how that can happen, but emphasizes that research in the field hasn’t managed to go as far as could perhaps be expected. Instead of trying different systems and studying the results, it is now time to formulate systems that we already know can support change in behaviour when they are created.
“The changes are also difficult to measure; we need to start discussing measurement methods.”
Other aspects that need to be studied more are ethics, as well as unwanted side effects. Nor are there any studies of differences, cultural or otherwise, between those who have grown up with computers and those who haven’t.
“It would certainly be valuable to have a track at the next conference that only deals with the failures. That’s what you learn the most from,” says Oinas-Kukkonen.
Persuasive 2012 Conference
Read more about BJ Fogg and watch his videos
Persuasive Technology Lab at Stanford University
Department of Computer and Information Science (IDA) at Linköping University
Technology changes behaviour
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Last updated: 2013-06-18