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Captology: How Computers Rewire our Minds—and Why We Let Them


For many of us, our lives depend on our technology. We sit down to desktops at work. We use Google Maps to check the schedule for our commutes. We constantly message friends and family. We use our devices to connect to the world, and as science marches on, we constantly rewire and redesign them. The question is this: how have your digital devices rewired you? To answer that question, we must study persuasion—communicative rewiring—and why the most innocuous of details on our computers and mobile devices are actually persuasive tools.

The question that birthed more questions

At Stanford University over twenty years ago, researchers first asked the question of how we can use technology to automate persuasion. Persuasion—most often defined as a communicator’s attempt to elicit a desired response from a receiver—is a major goal for any communicator. The “automation” of persuasion the Stanford researchers searched for specifically refers to using the power of new technology to change behaviors, beliefs and actions. Considering the degree to which technology and digital media now permeate our lives, the propensity for technology to change our lives is huge.

Wanting to study persuasion through technology more, the Stanford researcher BJ Fogg coined the term captology in 1996 from the acronym “CAPT,” or Computers as Persuasive Technologies. Captology refers to the study of how every aspect of interactive computing products (including computers, phones, websites, apps and video games) can be used to change attitudes or behaviors. From then on, the study of captology grew into the Persuasive Tech Lab at Stanford and today continues to expand outside Stanford to research and business institutions across the world.

Captology in your life

If the idea of a computer persuading you to change your behaviour, belief or action seems far-fetched to you, try this. Think of a website that made something you do faster, more enjoyable or more convenient. Instead of looking something up in an encyclopedia, you type in your question on Google. Instead of searching local bookstores for the cookbook your mother wanted, you order it from Amazon. The speed, ease and convenience of these websites persuaded you to change your behaviour and to use their services. Convincing you to use a website’s services is only one way that computers and technology are persuasive.

Beyond convenience, psychologists have long identified instant messaging and texting as addictive. Phones persuade you to implicitly change your behaviour by leading you to check it repeatedly—a consequence of the dopamine rush caused by a new message notification. Even the simplest aspect of our computing devices, instant messaging, is persuasive.

Now that you understand how something as mundane as a phone feature or a website’s mere existence can persuade you to change your behaviours, think of other details of technology that changed your beliefs or actions. A famous theory in communication and behaviour studies is Cultivation Theory, which states—originally referring to television—that persistent long-term exposure to media has small but measurable effects on how one sees the world. In other words, the media you consume shapes your view of reality. If you only watch news reports on violence and war, you may come to believe that the world at large is violent.

Cultivation Theory applies to digital media, too. Have you ever scrolled through your Facebook feed, seeing nothing but your Facebook friends sharing political articles? You may have found yourself later thinking of nothing but politics, too. Because the digital media you consumed made politics seem like the most important thing in the world, you may have thought so too. In this situation, the content of your Facebook feed persuaded you, even for just a little while, to believe something else.

Why is captology significant?

Still, how are these minor instances of persuasion important or useful? These examples may seem like the inconsequential results of technology existing at all. Can technology developers actually design more persuasive technology that can be used and monetized?

They can—and they do. Today’s designers and developers make many of their decisions following Fogg’s theory of behaviour change, which he developed from older communications theories during his captology research. Three criteria must be fulfilled for you to do something, from downloading an app to buying a new phone. You must want to do it, you must be able to do it, and you must be prompted to do it. The prompt, or the trigger, is only effective when you are highly motivated or when the task is easy.

Designers use these three criteria when developing their technologies. For example, think of Netflix’s feature that automatically plays the next episode of a show you are watching unless you tell it to stop. Netflix’s goal is for you to continue using its services and to continue watching the show. As The Economist’s 1843 magazine notes, it uses Fogg’s three criteria to accomplish this goal. Because you finished the last episode, you likely want to know what happens next. You are motivated to continue watching the show. You are certainly able to do so—it takes more effort to stop the video than for you to let it keep playing. The trigger is the next episode beginning to play. Through this design, Netflix automates persuading a viewer to keep using its services and to watch the next episode.

Netflix uses the same philosophy in monetizing its services by designing its interface so it is easier to continue a subscription than to cancel it. Netflix is currently worth over 61 billion US dollars and has over 100 million subscribers around the world.  Developers recognize the power of technology to change the way we act and what we believe. The addictive qualities of mobile phones and their myriad apps and features drove the annual worth of the mobile industry to 1.56 trillion dollars in 2014. Captology is everywhere, and those who can identify it can profit off of it.

The answer

Now you know the answer: that technology rewires us in innumerable ways. Computers all around us lead us to change our behaviours. In other words, they persuade us. The study of captology focuses on how technology rewires our brains—and how, as creators, we can rewire our own brains, too.

Take a look at the topics: Industry 4.0, automation, Cobots and Co.

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