December 20, 2013


An email pops into your mailbox – do you click on it? The scale says you’ve lost half a pound – do you go to the gym that afternoon? Technology influences our behavior every day, from the sites we read to the habits we adopt. But how?

That’s the billion-dollar question that BJ Fogg, head of Stanford University’s Persuasive Technology Lab, seeks to answer. Dividing his time between academia and industry, Fogg instructs his clients – whether companies or college seniors – on how to get technology to persuade us.

Take this example. A few years ago, Fogg taught a class on making Facebook apps. His advice was to keep it simple – people want to accomplish something with one click – and to tap into a desire that people already have. The result? Some students in this class, right in the middle of the semester, began making thousands of dollars off these apps.

In fact, one of Fogg’s students co-founded Instagram, an application for editing and sharing photos. But really, Fogg says, the photo-sharing capabilities might be secondary. The real reason people use Instagram, he thinks, is because they want to look good to others – to show how cool their weekend or vacation was, how trendy the bars they frequent are, or how beautiful their meals look.

The desire to look good to others is a huge motivator and pushes us to use these technologies. But Fogg's theory of how to effectively motivate people can have its downsides. One of the Facebook apps his students created, "Send Hotness,” allowed users to rate the hotness of others and would only reveal your own “hotness” level if you invited ten or fifteen people to join the app. As it turns out, "Send Hotness" was far more effective than Fogg would have liked. 

“They ended up getting thousands, tens of thousands, eventually millions of people using this. It was very effective for them,” Fogg says. “But it makes you wonder: whoa, how is this a good thing?”

For more on technology's power to persuade us – including how companies like Facebook and LinkedIn are so effective in getting us to interact with their websites  - tune into our full interview with BJ Fogg, above.

Still curious?

BJ Fogg, mobile technology, technology, persuasion, Sci and Tech

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