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What Is Persuasive Technology?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Shereen Skola
  • Last Modified Date: 03 October 2014
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Persuasive technology attempts to change the way users think and behave. This area of the computer sciences combines several disciplines to harness the way users interact with technology to create shifts in the way they perceive the world around them. Applications for persuasive technology can include advertising, health education, and political activism. Many examples are ubiquitous and users may not be consciously aware of the way the technology around them affects their behavior, habits, and attitudes.

Principles from psychology play a key role in persuasive technology, which aims to convince people to adopt changes to their lives, rather than attempting to coerce them. Psychology explains how and why people respond to persuasive arguments and illustrates the way different settings can impact user response. People may view a source on the Internet as more reliable, for example, if it's presented in plain text on a site with a somber visual appearance, in contrast with a cluttered site filled with animations and bright colors. Changes in site design and structure can have an impact on the way people use the site.

Advertising researchers have conducted extensive experiments into persuasive technology to determine how people can be persuaded into making purchases and changing their buying habits. This research informs the advertising techniques used on technology platforms, from flashing banner ads on websites to advertising kiosks in malls. Information from advertising research helps people design political awareness campaigns, public health outreach, and other forms of persuasive technology.

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Habits and attitudes can be deeply ingrained and it can take a slow, subtle approach to create a change in the way people behave. Persuasive technology exploits human psychology to accomplish these changes in campaigns that may be targeted at a variety of groups. Designers must consider who they want to influence, as different groups may have quite varied responses to campaigns. For example, a campaign might build on mutual trust through a social network to appeal to younger Internet users.

Research on this topic also brings up some ethical issues. People with an understanding of how to influence people could potentially abuse it to advance antisocial persuasive technology campaigns. Some researchers are interested in the potential abuses, such as the use of scaremongering campaigns to influence voters with frightening and untrue information. Understanding how, when, and why people respond to materials they encounter can be helpful for countering such campaigns or pursuing legal cases connected to campaigns that are unfair or slanderous.

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