Persuasive Technology: Elective Behaviour Management or Brainwashing?

Published: July 6, 2016

Captology is the study of computers as persuasive technologies. The term was coined by scientist B J Fogg, whose Persuasive Technology Lab is at Stanford University. He specialises in creating systems to ‘change people’s behaviour’ and while you might be thinking he works for a covert government agency, nothing could be further from the truth. In 2007, Fogg taught a course on the ‘Psychology of Facebook’ and his students designed apps that saw 16 million users in ten weeks, making a number of the app developers quite wealthy in the process. Persuasive technology is anything that encourages the user to modify their behaviour. This can be information or incentives delivered via websites, apps, mobile phones, games, etc. The question is whether persuasive technology is actually coercion or simply a way to encourage or motivate someone to act in a certain way?


Even something as seemingly benign as a website allowing you to stay logged in could mean you visit that site more often and even spend money. Amazon’s famous one-click ordering and same-day delivery make shopping fast and uncomplicated. Yes, you could shop around and find the same item for less, but this would mean logging in, adding the item to the basket, checking out and filling in your payment details. Amazon has made it mind-bendingly simple, which is why its shares perform so well. Getting points or cash back for using a credit card is another example of persuasive technology, as the consumer might otherwise pay cash for the item or not buy it.


Pressure and Guilt

How often have you acted under pressure? When you watch the horrific and tear-jerking ads for dying children in third world countries, what makes you pick up your phone and text a donation?

Even something as overtly positive as a fitness app can motivate out of guilt. They want you to believe you should be: lighter, thinner, stronger, fitter, more flexible. By using social media to compare results (similar to what weight-loss classes do) this motivates users to stick to diets or face embarrassment. It’s quite amazing how peer pressure alters behaviour. Opower’s home energy management software lets you compete with the energy consumption of similar homes but for the pinnacle in throw downs, you can now upload your utility bill to Facebook and compete with your friends. Baby Think It Over, an infant simulator, is aimed at stopping teenage pregnancies by taking the user through the sleepless nights and inconveniences of having an infant to care for.


Many apps use incentives to change patterns of behaviour. Get Rich or Die Smoking is a clever little app that shows you what you could buy with the money you’re saving by not smoking. Kwit also tries to get users not to smoke but they use gaming and achieving levels as their rewards. Others give you daily words of wisdom or support from the community of addiction-breakers. How well they manipulate choices depends on what motivates the individual user.

Macrosuasion and Microsuasion

While an entire piece of software aimed at altering behaviour is seen as macrosuasion, smaller design elements within larger programs are classed as microsuasion. An example of this would be a school learning management system with a facility to offer praise or rewards for completing tasks. The function of the LMS is to educate and the incentive is designed to persuade. Webanywhere’s school web design, School Jotter, is no exception and with the Merits app pupils can create their own avatar with points earned. The more merits, the more they can customise their avatar or donate to charity. It’s behaviour modification but through positive motivation.

We cannot escape persuasive technology, as it permeates everything we do and experience, in one form or another. Whether it’s a form of coercion or free will is difficult to determine. Perhaps we all need to take a step back and ask who is pulling our strings?