Shanghai lady

Persuasive technology

Persuasive technology is broadly defined as technology that intentionally changes attitudes or behaviors through persuasion and social influence. A technology either designed or employed for those purposes is persuasive technology (Fogg 2002). Such technologies are regularly used in sales, diplomacy, politics, religion, military training, public health, and management, and may potentially be used in any area of human-human or human-computer interaction. Most self-identified persuasive technology research focuses on interactive, computational technologies, including desktop computers, Internet services, video games, and mobile devices (Oinas-Kukkonen et al. 2008), but this incorporates and builds on the results and methods of experimental psychology, rhetoric (Bogost 2007), human-computer interaction, and design with intent.


Persuasive technologies can be categorized by their functional roles. B.J. Fogg (1998) proposes the Functional Triad as a classification of three "basic ways that people view or respond to computing technologies": persuasive technologies can function as either tools, media, and social actors -- or as more than one at once.

As tools, technologies can increase people's ability to perform a target behavior by making it easier or restructuring it (Fogg 2002, ch. 3). For example, an installation wizard can influence task completion -- including completing tasks (such as installation of additional software) not planned by users.

As media, interactive technologies can use both interactivity and narrative to create persuasive experiences that support rehearsing a behavior, empathizing, or exploring causal relationships (Fogg 2002, ch. 4). For example, simulations and games instantiate rules and procedures that express a point of view and can shape behavior and persaude; these use procedural rhetoric (Bogost 2007).

Technologies can also function as social actors (Reeves & Nass 1996, Turkle 1984). This "opens the door for computers to apply [...] social influence" (Fogg 2002, p. 90). Interactive technologies can cue social responses through e.g. their use of language, assumption of established social roles, or physical presence. For example, computers can use embodied conversational agents as part of their interface. Or a helpful or disclosive computer can cause users to mindlessly reciprocate (Fogg 1997b, Moon 2000).

Persuasive technologies can also be categorized by whether they change attitude and behaviors through direct interaction or through a mediating role (Oinas-Kukkonen & Harjumaa 2008): do they persuade through e.g. human-computer interaction (HCI) or computer-mediated communication (CMC)? The examples already mentioned are the former, but there are many of the latter. Communication technologies can persuade or amplify the persuasion of others by transforming the social interaction (Licklider 1968, Bailenson et al. 2004) or restructuring communication processes (Winograd 1986).


Examples of technologies which can be used for persuasive purposes are:


Persuasion is as old as humanity itself, and records exist to show that the available technology of the day has been used to assist with persuasion for many thousands of years, and has evolved over the centuries to become more effective. The earliest persuasive technologies were those which facilitated verbal communication. The first major advancement though was the technology which facilitated books, flyers, pamphlets, billboards and other forms of widely reproduced written and later visual communication. Sometimes these have a profound effect on culture - for example the Shanghai lady image in 1930s China. Today there are a plethora of electronic technologies which can be used for persuasive purposes.

The key difference between "persuasion technology" in the modern sense and the persuasion which might have been used by a Roman emperor or a radical cleric supporting the reformation is the degree of reciprocal technical equality. In ordinary conversation unaided by persuasive technology, an individual may be more eloquent and persuasive than another individual, depending on their relative talents and training. But persuasive technology can give one interlocutor a technological edge and this might be the decisive factor. Improving intrusive technology e.g. RFID tags make this a rather more subversive process.

There are recorded incidences of carpenters or stonemasons defeating highly respected scholars in classical rhetorical history. This would be more difficult today. Carpenters and stonemasons generally do not have the same access to persuasive technology as experts do.

Reciprocal equality

What distinguishes a persuasion technology from simple "persuasion" is that the individual being persuaded cannot easily respond by creating an equally effective counter-presentation in real time - a lack of reciprocal equality. The means used to achieve this dominance or advantage can be considered in two classes:

  • Physical persuasion tools (usually electronic) which can be used to skew the balance of persuasive power between the participants. Examples include computers, broadcast equipment, pamphlets, photographs, charts, and the like.
  • Methods of persuasion. These combine psychology with careful preparation. Salespeople and other professional persuaders, are commonly trained to work within a carefully prepared conceptual framework and have a series of contingency plans which structure and clarify the customer interaction for them. Whereas a typical buyer or recruit is interacting on an ad hoc basis, a well-trained and well-prepared persuader has a ready-made set of psychologically tested and effective strategies to deal with objections and overcome resistance. Supporters of the theory claim that the difference between mere salesmanship and a persuasion technology is the utilisation of well-researched quasi-scientific psychological (some say psychological warfare) methods to develop persuasive strategies and train the persuaders.

Social, political, and ethical concerns

On the broader macro level, some types of persuasion technology (such as mass media) are largely controlled by a select few individuals. Alternative view points are seldom presented. Because media is paid for by advertising, advertisers tend to have an editorial influence too. It becomes quite difficult to establish any equality between those who control the media and their guests, and those who would wish to challenge them. Edward S. Herman has written extensively on this topic, and considers it a major social question. Concern has been expressed that such techniques disempower those who do not have knowledge of them and access to them. This is of particular concern in a democracy.

Use in business

Interestingly, the computer industry itself provides some examples of rejecting certain technologies simply for their power to persuade. Scott McNealy of Sun Microsystems declared his company a PowerPoint-Free Zone, which was seen as a simple attack on his rival Bill Gates of Microsoft. But Lou Gerstner of IBM went further, and declared that no presentation technology at all would be used in his office, but that proposals would have to be presented on a single overhead slide with a single color of marker. He spoke strongly against the distraction of effort into persuasive presentations, and away from the core elements of business cases and real customer service. He did not, unlike Sun, ban his own salespeople from using these, a tacit acknowledgement that there was indeed power to sway decisions in such methods and technologies, and that he considered it an obligation to stockholders not to be himself swayed by it in his own office.

Use in education

Instructors may assign persuasion technology projects such as developing PowerPoint presentations to students as a motivational tool for learning and a way of developing presentational skills, especially in elementary schools. However, the importance of learning visual communication over verbal communication, abstract communication, and persuasion as necessary in presentation is a subject of debate.

Edward Tufte has decried the misuse of PowerPoint and the adoption of its style in education.

Particularly disturbing is the adoption of the PowerPoint cognitive style in our schools. Rather than learning to write a report using sentences, children are being taught how to formulate client pitches and infomercials. Elementary school PowerPoint exercises (as seen in teacher guides and in student work posted on the Internet) typically consist of 10 to 20 words and a piece of clip art on each slide in a presentation of three to six slides -a total of perhaps 80 words (15 seconds of silent reading) for a week of work. Students would be better off if the schools simply closed down on those days and everyone went to the Exploratorium or wrote an illustrated essay explaining something."

See also

Other subjects which have some overlap or features in common with persuasive technology include:


  • Bailenson, J. N., Beall, A. C., Loomis, J., Blascovich, J., & Turk, M. (2004). Transformed Social Interaction: Decoupling Representation from Behavior and Form in Collaborative Virtual Environments. Presence: Teleoperators & Virtual Environments, 13(4), 428-441.
  • Bogost, I. (2007). Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames. MIT Press.
  • Fogg, B. J., & Nass, C. (1997a). Silicon sycophants: the effects of computers that flatter. International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, 46(4), 551-561.
  • Fogg, B. J., & Nass, C. (1997b) How users reciprocate to computers: an experiment that demonstrates behavior change. In Proceedings of CHI 1997, ACM Press, 331-332. .
  • Fogg, B. J. (1998). Persuasive computers: perspectives and research directions. Proceedings of CHI 1998, ACM Press, 225-232 .
  • Fogg, B. J. (2002). Persuasive Technology: Using Computers to Change What We Think and Do. Morgan Kaufmann
  • Fogg, B. J., & Eckles, D. (Eds.). (2007). Mobile Persuasion: 20 Perspectives on the Future of Behavior Change. Stanford, California: Stanford Captology Media.
  • Licklider, J. C. R., & Taylor, R. W. (1968). The Computer as a Communication Device. Science and Technology, 76(2), 1-3.
  • Moon, Y. (2000). Intimate Exchanges: Using Computers to Elicit Self-Disclosure from Consumers. The Journal of Consumer Research, 26(4), 323-339.
  • Nass, C., & Moon, Y. (2000). Machines and Mindlessness: Social Responses to Computers. Journal of Social Issues, 56(1), 81-103.
  • Oinas-Kukkonen Harri & Harjumaa Marja. 2008. A Systematic Framework for Designing and Evaluating Persuasive Systems. Proceedings of Persuasive Technology: Third International Conference, pp. 164-176.
  • Oinas-Kukkonen, H., Hasle, P., Harjumaa, M., Segerståhl, K., Øhrstrøm, P. (Eds.). (2008). Proceedings of Persuasive Technology: Third International Conference. Oulu, Finland, June 4-6, 2008. Lecture Notes in Computer Science. Springer.
  • Reeves, B., & Nass, C. (1996). The Media Equation: how people treat computers, television, and new media like real people and places. Cambridge University Press.
  • Turkle, S. (1984). The second self: computers and the human spirit. Simon & Schuster, Inc. New York, NY, USA.
  • Winograd, T. (1986). A language/action perspective on the design of cooperative work. Proceedings of the 1986 ACM conference on Computer-supported cooperative work, 203-220.

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