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Apr 18, 2010 | On the Art of Persuasion

I was recently made aware of a fascinating topic called captology, which is referred to as “the study of computers as persuasive technologies”. Persuasion, conviction and reassurance are actions that are easy to define but very difficult to enforce, which is perhaps why lawyers do get paid for what they do.


The wonderful thing about captology is that it attempts to use computers to persuade people to do something. I think there is a certain distinction between persuasion to do and persuasion to think, and the latter is an interesting challenge. Persuasion is a reflection of one’s own world view, and the trouble is that one’s own world view is largely shaped by what one sees and what one believes (and less so by what one hears). A recent NPR Science Friday show highlighted this very succinctly: all it takes is for one argument to suggest that climate change is not real for people to harp upon that idea as the pivotal reason why it isn’t real, even though a lot of evidence shows it to be wrong. A recent spate of cold weather may reinforce the idea that global warming is a myth, for example. You can extend the idea to the healthcare debate or even the recent Lancet retraction of the supposed medical link between vaccination and autism. So long as there are mechanisms for people to latch on to “evidence” or “authority” that reinforces their world view, persuasion of anything otherwise is pretty futile.

Until now.

The advent of technology (I make it sound like it’s a new thing) really has changed the dynamic for evidence-based argumentation. On one hand, it has become somewhat problematic because people will filter the noise they find online by coming across a myriad of resources that support their beliefs (though I don’t know if anyone is an active member of the Flat Earth Society). On the other hand, it’s a marvelous vehicle for self-expression and dialogue and most importantly, a path towards some form of persuasion. It really boils down to the persuasion of doing (buying things, donating, joining a group) translating to a persuasion of thinking. What’s more, social media and collective behaviour online help persuade people in subtle ways that hopefully will lead to more open-mindedness and greater good for the world.

If you’re feeling good about captology, head on over to TED for a talk by Jonathan Zittrain about the web as a random act of kindness.

This entry was posted on Sunday, April 18th, 2010 at 12:15 pm, EST under the category of Future Me. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.