Technology can persuade us to do better

Trying to get yourself to eat more vegetables or to cycle to work every day? Technology may be able to provide assistance and support you in your endeavours. Persuasive technology helps and supports us with behaviours that we find difficult. It can show us when we’re doing okay, and guide us when we feel a bit lost.

Changing your behaviour can be difficult. Starting regular exercise when you’re not used to doing any, or eating more fruit and vegetables than before can be a daunting task, but with the help of technology it is possible to have personal support and guidance at your fingertips. Need help from a nutritionist or a personal trainer? These services are now in your pocket. Or more accurately, on your mobile phone. 

Support can be delivered via technology

Persuasive technology research brings in the vast amounts of knowledge on behaviour change from fields like social psychology, and offers them to the public by means of technology. There are applications and services that can help us quit smoking, control our diets, and even reduce our carbon footprint. Changing habits that have sometimes taken a lifetime to form and sustain is hard to do. Learning important new habits takes a lot of focus and energy, and in today’s hectic world we may find ourselves short of resources to do what we need to.

Persuasive technology can offer support in many ways. It can support your primary goal by making your tasks more manageable, by offering feedback on how you are doing, and it can harness the power of social influence. For example, a persuasive system can help in setting small intermediate goals for your overall target of exercising more, and offering you continuous feedback on your way to achieving those goals. A display on the roadside will show you a smiley face when you are driving at the correct speed, or a sad face if you are going too fast. A charger cable lights up when it is connected to the wall, drawing your attention to how it’s still consuming electricity. Through social interaction, knowing there are others who are trying to achieve the same goals as we are offers support and additional motivation.

Such strategies hail from the social sciences. Albert Bandura saw that we are social learners and we learn by observing how other people behave. Richard E. Petty and John Cacioppo were interested in how we process information, either very analytically, quite heuristically or somewhere in-between. Icek Ajzen theorized on planned behaviour, where attitudes, norms and behavioural control would lead to behavioural intentions.  In the early 2000s, Stanford psychologist B.J. Fogg started to explore how to use computers in implementing the principles of behaviour change, and at the University of Oulu Harri Oinas-Kukkonen and Marja Harjumaa have since collected and processed many of these principles into persuasive systems design guidance.

The societal implications of offering behaviour change through technology are immense. Support in chronic disease management and other health care, in the need for lifestyle change that our society is facing right now, or in battling societal issues such as exclusion or extremism are relevant and important issues in our society. Technology enables us to reach, connect, and be alert to the needs of more individuals than ever before. 

As individuals, we can take comfort in knowing that affordable and personalized support is available for those moments when we feel like we are perhaps lacking in willpower, or when we feel alone in our struggle to pick up the key to the bicycle instead of the car the morning.

Last updated: 13.10.2016

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