Little did I know that, two years ago, when I started writing my master thesis together with Robbert Winkel, it would end up in a pub in Sweden called “De Klomp”. But that is (obviously) what happened.
Within the Media Technology program at Leiden University, which I followed, students are encouraged to formulate their own research questions throughout the program, and ultimately at one’s graduation project. For the graduation project, you need to write a scientific, ‘publishable’ paper. I’ll save you further details, but we ended up with a topic called persuasive technology, a topic that we had never heard about until then. If the same is true for you, than you can read my explanation below (or read the Wikipedia article). Else, just skip the paragraph.
A common definition for persuasive technology is “any interactive computer system designed to change people’s behaviors without coercion or deception”. One can, for example, design a device that helps someone to eat healthier. But is important to stress that persuasion is restricted to voluntary change: a villain threatening you with a gun and telling you to give him all your money is coercive rather than persuasive, (a gun would otherwise be an example of rather potent persuasive technology).
I asked myself why I never heard about this amazing new technology. But actually, I think persuasive technology is not really new. It is based on various existing theories, from different disciplines, like psychology, sociology, design and computer science. I mostly consider it to be a point of view to look at certain challenges, where we can help people to change their behaviors in a positive way.
Anyway, we gave our thesis the following, really scientific sounding title: “Normative Social Influence in Persuasive Technology: Intensity versus Effectiveness”. It is actually about group pressure in social networks like Facebook. And more precise: it is about the question if the effectiveness changes when the intensity of group pressure changes (within a social network). So we first needed to find out how we can vary intensity of group pressure. In 1981 Latane described three factors that influence the intensity of group pressure: strength, immediacy and group size. This means – not really surprisingly - that five family members in front of you can have more ‘intense’ social pressure than one stranger at a phone. There are actually many more factors that influence this pressure, but we used these three basic factors to see how the effectiveness varies by varying the intensity. To find this out, we designed a façade–experiment. For more details, I like to refer to our paper.
So what is the result of our research? First of all, it turns out that normative social influence does work within social networks. We found a significant difference between the control group condition and the other, persuasive, conditions. However, the persuasive conditions that we designed did not give significant results. This can mean two things: (1) there are just no (significant) differences between our conditions or (2) we did not have enough participants to be able to measure significant differences between our conditions. According to our senior researcher and mathematical statistician, Rogier Brussee, there is good change that the latter is the case. By the way, Rogier helped us a lot with improving our texts and data analyses, for which I also seriously thank him here!
I probably have to explain how this ended up in the pub, called “De Klomp”. So here comes the climax. After we successfully defended our thesis at the university, we send our paper to the persuasive technology conference Persuasive 2012, and we were accepted! For me, that meant that we were taken serious by researchers that probably know much more about this topic. So, the next challenge for us was to prepare a presentation for the conference. So we did, and the presentation of our thesis was a success. The conference took place in Linköping, Sweden. Across the street of our hotel, there was a pub called “De Klomp”, and after the presentation we celebrated our success with a beer!