Why even, you manage to overspend every time you visit your favorite e-shopping site, even though you have sworn to show restrain, buying only what you intended to in the first place?
Gamification, rewards and prizes (digital and otherwise), bragging rights, ease of use, strategically placed, personalized product suggestions and color combinations, are some of the reasons why. These and other tools are constantly being employed to influence the decisions people are going to make, to help them stick to a goal, or to encourage them to act in a certain way.
Behind the tools lies the science: it is called captology and it’s the study of the way computers (and mobile phones, apps, software and other digital devices) can be used as instruments of persuasion (influence, motivation, behavioral change etc). The word comes from an acronym, Computers As Persuasive Technologies coined by B.J Fogg in 1996. You may think that captology is a new trend, born out of smartphones and social media, but influence through computers can actually be traced back to the time when video games’ design and virtual reality were hot research domains. Although the perspective and the computers’ capabilities are very different now, the idea of changing behaviors and altering attitudes through their use is the same.
There are numerous debates in the scientific community regarding the various aspects, and extend of the field, but the elephant in the room has always been, and still is, the ethical aspect of it: even if technology permits it, should people use technology to change perceptions, intentions and behaviors? As with most ethical questions arising from progress, the jury is still out. But consider this: persuasion has always been a part of human interactions, no matter what tools there where available. From the orators of ancient Greece discussing democracy and war, to the first marketing campaigns promoting miracle cures in town fairs, to broadcasting, to today’s high-tech tools, people always used whatever means they found most effective to try and sway the opinions and actions of others. Throughout history, it was always the motives of behind the act that made persuasion ethical or not; it was never the tools used. So why should computers be any different?