November 09, 2009
Persuasive Technology

An article in New Scientist explores how user interface researchers are developing ways to better persuade people to make choices that assorted organizations want them to make.

Researchers at Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands are using iCat, a robotic cat made by Philips, to advise on energy use. It talks and can move its lips, eyelashes and eyebrows.

Concerns from an early era about the ability of Madison Avenue advertising agencies to brainwash humans with TV ads seem quaint compared to what high resolution UIs and eventually artificially intelligent robots will do to persuade us.

Cuteness can persuade.

One experiment showed that when programming a washing machine, people were more inclined to follow energy consumption advice about different cycles when it came from iCat rather than graphs and numbers. That suggests the savings which simple awareness can provoke can be magnified by using more "social" mechanisms to deliver advice.

I am reminded of the web site which really does deliver on its name. That sort of high dose cuteness could really be automated to barrage humans with cute images aimed at persuading. Imagine a really fast computer capable of making very high resolution simulations of kitties that do things that an appliance's designers want you to do.

A refrigerator might reward you with cute images for eating vegetables rather than high calorie foods. Or a car could deluge you with cute kitty images because you went easy on the throttle. Already the Ford Fusion Hybrid dashboard grows green leaves in proportion to how easy you go on the gas pedal.

I expect device developers to take all the persuasion research and embed persuasive techniques from that research into products. We'll be far more persuaded in the future. Will we develop resistance to this more sophisticated, automated, and pervasive persuasion? Or will we be happier knowing we are making decisions designed to make us feel rewarded for choosing them?

Share |      Randall Parker, 2009 November 09 10:06 PM  Brain Free Will

Bob Badour said at November 10, 2009 5:21 AM:

I misread that link initially. Given the tone of the article, I liked it better my way:

not anon or anonymous said at November 10, 2009 6:58 AM:

The iCat and images are positively hilarious. Cute images are good at catching attention, and I can see them being used to make android robots more popular (this would be effectively side-stepping the "uncanny valley").

Apart from that, they're not especially persuasive--in fact, I could see them backfiring by evoking an unprofessional image. Imagine a cute cat robot telling you about the technical merits of Widgets Corp.'s latest energy-saving product.

Dave Gore said at November 10, 2009 7:28 AM:

Or how about a cute, sincere-sounding president whose ears stick out a little? Who wouldn't believe someone like that?

Lono said at November 10, 2009 8:19 AM:


Dang - that domain's alreayd been parked - I suppose I'll hafta do with what I already have!


That works on many levels, eh?


at first I thought such cute images would have little effect on me - until I realized they would have the alternate mode for people like me - "obey our commands to rock and destroy the cute little animals - and all that annoy you!"

With a punishment of being powerless over these virtual cute overlords if I did not follow their chosen path...

Now that would jack with me a bit - at least until I got a modded version tailored to my unique tastes!


Strick said at November 10, 2009 10:11 AM:

I'd have no compunction smashing an iCat the second it got annoying. Already shot the MS paperclip, which has to be an early attempt at this.

Baby M said at November 10, 2009 10:23 AM:

According to the Lucas Hypothesis of Rational Expectations, and the corollary Lucas Critique and Policy Ineffectiveness Proposition, the cute-talking-kitten technique will lose its effectiveness over time. (Sort of like Keynesian monetary policy.) You can hasten that trend, of course, by smashing the iCat the second it gets annoying.

Anonymouse said at November 10, 2009 10:28 AM:

It's merely continuing research done by the military. Ever note that pilots are talked to in a female voice? There's been research that males are more attentive to a female voice.

Ryan said at November 10, 2009 10:32 AM:

I just keep thinking of this...

not anon or anonymous said at November 10, 2009 10:36 AM:

Or how about a cute, sincere-sounding president whose ears stick out a little? Who wouldn't believe someone like that?

Nah, a cute white guy would never become President. You'd need a cute half-black guy--that way he'd have a really nice tan.

Barry D said at November 10, 2009 10:52 AM:

There's been research that males are more attentive to a female voice.

Can you point me to that research? I doubt that many wives will believe it without seeing the data.:-)

Cute Ciller Cat said at November 10, 2009 11:29 AM:

Your google-fu is weak.

Greg Q said at November 10, 2009 12:12 PM:

Get real. That will work for maybe two weeks.

And then there are the people like me, who will take signs of growing green leaves as an indication that my driving sucks, and needs to get more aggressive.

DensityDuck said at November 10, 2009 12:40 PM:

It's like the inverse of "A Clockwork Orange".

Anne said at November 10, 2009 4:14 PM:

That iCat looks like the bottles of bubble bath I got as a kid. Don't find it cute and doubt it could do more than persuade me to bathe.

Joseph Hertzlinger said at November 10, 2009 8:24 PM:

Cute icons don't always work. The official mascot of the 1980 Moscow Olympics was the overwhelmingly cute Misha the bear (we will bury you in cuteness), but that didn't improve the image of the Soviet Union.

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