Meet Dr. BJ FOGG: Master of Persuasive Technology

The digital age is still in its nascent phase. The first iPhone was released in 2007, barely ten years ago, and now our pocket devices are constantly updated, promising a solution to fill the voids in our mind. Already, we have experienced a change in basis of expression. We swipe to find love, scroll to be informed, and use our down-time to click some more. Contrary to popular belief, we are not training these devices to suit our will. Instead, we find ourselves running through a maze built by experts whose motives are hidden in enigmatic terms of agreement. One of the architects of these contemporary communication methods is BJ Fogg, the director the Persuasive Technology Lab at Stanford University and the teacher of many Silicon Valley stars such as Instagram co-founder Mike Krieger. Fogg designs systems that change human behavior, and though his research has stopped focussing on technology, his work has laid the groundwork for our relationship with it.

In an attempt to understand the depths of persuasive technology’s influence, 032c’s Eva Kelley spoke to BJ Fogg about the future of bot-communication, workshopping with the military, and how Aristotle’s rhetoric sparked the beginnings of his research.

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Eva Kelley: The power that technology holds over us has become more and more present in people’s minds lately, especially in the face of the elections and all these stories about fake news. At the same time, there is an unawareness of the addictive traits of technology – we’re only slowly realizing the effects. There are people on the other side of this whose actual job it is to addict us to our phones, which made me wonder if we are actually enjoying the experience or just manipulated into enjoying it. Do you think people would change their behavior if they were conscious of what they were being persuaded to do? Like with social media use, for example.

BJ Fogg: I think some people would. This morning, I did Snapchat. I didn’t snap anything, but I watched snaps from my nieces and nephews, and it took four minutes out of my day while I was eating breakfast. I deliberately made it part of my morning routine and in this kind of situation, I think it’s a good way of staying in touch. Then you go to the other extreme where social media is actually pulling us toward the phone. You look around the restaurants and pretty much everyone has their phone on the table and they’re just being constantly drawn away from the live face-to-face interaction – I do think that’s a bad thing. Something like Snapchat can be a good thing, whereas, it can also be a bad thing. It just depends on the context.

Don’t you think it’s odd that we need to be reinforced by machinery to stay in touch with loved ones? Why are apps better at persuading us to get in touch with people than our friends?

Sometimes they’re more convenient. Our culture in the US, it seems that, at least for my nieces and nephews, they don’t just call me out of the blue. They first text me. It’s a less intrusive way of getting in touch.

How did you get into the field of persuasive technology?

Well, I was the first person to describe that there was something coming that would be an overlap between technology and persuasion. And I was the first to articulate that and then give it a name. I once called it captology – I don’t use that anymore – I call it persuasive technology. I grew up in a really forward-thinking technology home where my dad like, as soon as there was anything called like a microwave, he brought one into the garage. It was enormous – nobody had ever heard of this thing. In the sixties, he had some sort of phone in his car where he could call us. This was in like, 1969.

Really? Wow.

Yeah, he even soldered together the chips for his own computer. Nobody had a computer and I was helping him make one. I was encouraged to goof around with technology and then I also grew up in a culture of persuasion. So later, when I was taking a break from one of my degrees, I was living in France and I had these little books, a series called “Que sais-je?” [What do I know?]. I was reading the one about Aristotle and persuasion and I’m like, “Oh my gosh, I can see this overlaying technology.” This systematic way of thinking about behaviour, or persuasion, and computers, that overlap was what I wanted to do for my doctorate and I decided to go to Stanford. Nobody was doing any work like that.

How old were you then?

A lot older than most entering doctoral students, probably 27 or 28, but I was in no hurry to finish school. When I went to Stanford, I attached myself to a relevant research group, which turned out to be a really good fit, and created this new thing that people had really mixed reactions to. Some people thought it was just idiotic. They were like, ”These computer machines are for storage and measurement and calculations.” In fact, I took a course in marketing at the Stanford business school from this big marketing professor dude that was kind of, you know, famous, and we were supposed to write up experiments in marketing. My experiments described computers promoting and selling products and he gave me a C minus. He said: ”This is never going to happen. This won’t work. Come up with something around TV or radio.” And I’m like, ”No, it’s going to be about computers.” I wouldn’t change my mind. I was like: ”You’re wrong, I’m right.” Well.

That’s so funny. It seems so normal now.

Even a professor at the graduate school of business at Stanford, when he first saw something that said that computers were going to be used for marketing and sales and changing behaviour, he rejected it. The experiments that we presented in the academic setting, they were puzzling to people. They just didn’t think of computers in these ways. But some people saw a huge opportunity.

From what I’ve read of your work, it seems that you’re kind of inherently optimistic about the human race. Weren’t you ever worried that your techniques could be abused?

Early on, I’m talking in the 1990s and early 2000s, I worried a lot about what this would mean. I wasn’t so concerned that people were taking my research and doing bad things with it, because my research at the beginning was really about showing. I was demonstrating that computers can change how people think and I was showing that in a scientific way. I wasn’t mapping out all the ways you can do it or so on. The innovations in persuasive technology have not come out of academic laboratories. Facebook didn’t come up out of an academic lab. Ok, the co-founder of Instagram was in my class, and certainly there’s a connection there between my work and Instagram, but when you look at the things that people are saying about this technology addicting us to them, that’s not a result of them studying anybody’s research. I don’t think that I or any other scientist wrote the playbook from which these companies evolved. I mean, it would be flattering to think I had that much influence.

What do you call your work today?

Behavior Design. It really doesn’t have that much to do with technology. I’m helping people think clearly about how human behavior works. And I design systems to influence human behavior.

How does it work exactly?

There are two overriding principles. One is to help people do what they already want to do. And if that’s not what you’re doing, your app, your product, your website, it will fail. Now sometimes people want to do things that aren’t good for them, like eat lots of doritos or waste time. Well, those companies can succeed. But notice again they’re following the pattern of them helping people do what they already want to do. I think for all successful persuasive technologies, that’s what they’re doing. Take away the “all” – that’s not true. Spam is a kind of persuasive technology. It’s not helping us do what we want to do. The next principle is to help people feel successful. And this is where a lot of the health and fitness devices and applications have failed. Instead of helping people see their progress or feel successful, they’re highlighting all the weaknesses and all the failures. If that’s what your system is doing, people stop using you. They stop wearing you. You need to help people feel successful.

How does that map back to persuasive technology?

Not very directly. I sort of stopped thinking of my work like that ten years ago. Behavior design is a set of models around how behavior works. Behavior happens when there’s motivation, ability, and a trigger. There are ways of how people make choices. So when I go work with clients I teach them how they can enter the methods so they will be able to win the next election, for example. And the methods will be like: What behaviours do we need people to do? What do we need journalists to do? What do we need the Mayor to say? Basically, breaking everything down to behaviors and figuring out how to help those behaviors happen.

And what about the design perspective?

I split that into two things. A set of models – ways of thinking. The most notable is the Fogg behavior model, but there’s a lot more. Then there’s a set of methods. I teach both the models and the methods and this process is systematic, so there is no guessing and it has a big impact. They’re not going to be making guesses of what they should do to have a better result in the upcoming election. Because of a set of methods, they will hone in on the right things to be focussing on and the right ways to get those done. It’s a system.

So it can’t fail.

It can, but what you avoid is a catastrophic failure. It’s not like some marketing person walks in and says: “Oh, here’s our tagline. We’re going to put this tagline everywhere.” That’s a pure guess. Most companies are just making guesses like that, and that’s a bad idea. There are ways to systematically think through what certain things represent to people and which things resonate with them.

Could you give an example?

A few days ago, I met with the woman who is in charge of 40 or 50 county parks here in California. They just barely lost getting funding for nature and their parks, and so I’m going to go in and work with her team so that they win in the next election. Three years ago I helped the same organisation – I did a little three hour training for them and I didn’t know what the result of that was, but this weekend she told me that they had tripled the sales of their annual passes thanks to me. Back then, they needed revenue.They were able to triple the sales of the annual passes and that translates to about a million dollars in revenue a year. Just from a three hour workshop.

I mean, that’s great that you can help someone make a million in revenue in three hours. But doesn’t that also scare you, how powerful that is? What if someone comes to your workshops with an evil plan in mind?

The people that come work for me either have to be an enrolled Stanford student or they go through an application process and they’re screened. I’ve gotten very specific about the kind of organisations and people I’ll help and which ones I won’t. The way I see it, life is short, and I’m going to help the most organisations that are doing good things in the world, like changing health behaviour and environmental space. There are some bad companies in the financial sector, and I don’t want to work with them or help them. And certainly I don’t want to work with casinos or fast food manufacturers.

Have you noticed significant changes in human behaviour, since social media exploded? Instagram, for example, is a solely visual form of expression, so, for the mainstream, it creates a sense of worth through image popularity but doesn’t really value one’s intellectual thoughts, consequently further manifesting that our worth is established through shallow attributes. What are the things that you, as a psychologist, have noticed about the ways people are acting differently?

It was probably ten years ago that I was speaking at a conference at Stanford and at that point pretty much everyone was starting to do email. So I got up and said: ”Email is ruining our lives. In fact, it’s killing us. I don’t have data on it killing us, but I do have data on it making us unhappy.” And my point was that email was changing the structure or the typography of our social lives. It made it very very easy to interact with strangers or loose connections, but for our richest, closest connections it was an impoverished medium. In other words, it weakens your strongest relationships. Number one: The channel itself is limited to text. Number two: You’re managing hundreds of other relationships, so you don’t have the time to focus on the important ones. The audience did not like that talk. You know, depending on how you look at it, this will whole physical thing, are we emphasizing that? Who cares if you have thousands of followers on Instagram or you’re interacting with 500 people over email? That kind of thing doesn’t bring you fulfilment in the same way that a set of close friends will. I think technology has made it much much harder to have such strong close relationships.

But what’s the alternative? Not having social media isn’t really an option for the majority of people.

It is. You pick and choose.

I think it automatically makes people unhappy in some form or other nowadays. If only because you’re comparing yourself constantly with different profiles.

Yes, if that’s what you’re doing. If you’re using social media as a way of competing with other people and comparing yourself, that’s probably going to have a bad effect. However, you can pick and choose. I don’t use Instagram, but I do use Snapchat because it doesn’t set me up to compare myself with anybody. I can be stupid on Snapchat, and it goes away. I only have like 20 or 30 followers, but I don’t care. I don’t want to get more. Whereas I guess, the culture of Instagram, has evolved to more what you talked about. I don’t want to be on that kind of treadmill, so I have deliberately chosen to not do Instagram. For me, it doesn’t achieve anything that I’m aspiring to.

What I find pretty crazy is that social media sites hook the users by providing “variable rewards.” Likes don’t appear on a set schedule, which makes us check the app compulsively to see if we get our social satisfaction prize.

It’s almost like, now that we have all these kinds of foods in front of us, are we always just going to eat pizza and fast food and candy? You can – and those things might taste the best, but if you want to have a great life, you’re going to be eating differently.

It’s still just the beginning and it’s difficult to look far into the future with this. When I think of the younger generation, they don’t know social life without social media. For most teenagers, it’s impossible to shield themselves from this because of course they are craving recognition and acceptance at this point in their lives and don’t not have the willpower you were describing regarding your own behavior. It sort of worries me to think about how this will affect our personalities.

Yes. I think the dynamic you’re describing is playing out for people. Back about ten years ago when Facebook was getting traction at Stanford, I announced my courses on Facebook. In fact, the course that Mike Krieger, the co-founder of Instagram, signed up for, we had promoted it on Facebook. That’s how we got the students. At that point in time, if you weren’t on Facebook, you didn’t really exist as a college student. So, you didn’t have to be on Facebook, but it meant you didn’t exist. There are social costs to not using it.

How do you envision the future? Do you think there will be ethical regulations and laws, or more laws surrounding our use of technology?

In order to what, stop us from being exploited? Or stop us from wasting our time?

Both, I guess. It feels like we’re walking in a giant ad when we are on social media, but it’s really subtle. Us participating is what changes it. Our behaviour is what makes the platform. People dislike ads so the internet adapted and made them invisible. Now they’re called “suggestions” and they are custom – it all happens on this unconscious level. The vagueness of these systems must be intentional, like the terms of agreement before you sign up for an app. The team behind it must know that no one reads this, so there’s an awareness of unknowing consent. This provides the company with a certain security that they can not be touched. You signed up – you gave consent.

Yes, there’s some blanket things that are alarming, but there are also things we use that are really beneficial. So, I think it would be unfair to characterise all of persuasive technology or all of social media as hurting our lives. There are some cases where people are either wasting their time, or they’re being exploited. Or they’re being pretty much forced to use a system that they don’t really want to use, because if they don’t, they’re not a social creature in that context. A former student of mine, Tristan Harris, is actually working on solutions to make addictive software more user friendly and I’ve encouraged him to shine a spotlight on the issue.

I reached out to Tristan Harris in regard to this subject matter. I read an article about him a while back and it described his moralistic approach to technology, his crusade against Silicon Valley, because it’s addicting its users. His work focusses on how technology should be designed to be used less and when I sent him an email, his assistant responded to me within two minutes. I thought that was kind of ironic.

Yeah, I don’t think you should read too much into that.

No, sure, but it was just such an ironic moment. After reading an article about his ideas against the constant use of technology.

Yeah it is. But it may be entirely automated. It might not even have been a real person responding to you.

Wait … what?

Like, I have auto responders on some things that I do.

No, but it was very personal … I think. I might have to read it again with a set of new eyes.

[Laughs] I trained them well. Does it matter whether it was a real person or a bot as long as you were able to coordinate and talk to Tristan?

I think it does.

That’s interesting.

Do you think we need a new age of enlightenment?

If I had to guess, the way it’s going to play out is a lot like how fast food and junk food and nutrition has played out. So, you can regulate it, you can have policies, but I think it’s going to probably end up that people will have to realize that if you want to have a happy healthy life, there are the kinds of technologies we will use often and those you will avoid or use on a very limited basis. Just like we do with food. There are flavor companies that design their products to be very, very yummy and addictive. But you know you probably shouldn’t have many fritos or doritos. You could. And that’s not an easy path. I mean, it hasn’t been an easy path at all.

BJ Fogg with lab members and students at the Persuasive Technology Lab at Stanford

BJ Fogg (far left) with lab members and students of the Persuasive Technology Lab at Stanford

When you compare the digital industry and social media to the way organic food has replaced junk food, do you think there will be a similar uproar and following regulations? Or will it be difficult to advocate change because Silicon Valley will have infiltrated politics?

When it comes to issues of privacy, then I do think there will be regulations and more understanding around privacy or terms of service. Like right now in our home, we have two of those Amazon devices that listen to you: Alexa. And she’s going to wake up right now and say, “How can I help you?” And I mean, I don’t know what’s going on with that system. I think they’re listening to us all the time, and I wanted to get rid of it. But other members of my household want to keep it. And I’m like, “We’re being listened to constantly here – and recorded.” I don’t know that for sure, but it’s probably in the terms of service.

You definitely have enough reason to believe that.

Right? But the convenience of it! People may have a sense of, “This is kind of creepy that Amazon could be listening to us all the time.” But we’re going to trade that off for the convenience it provides. So, around the privacy issues and the human rights issues there are problems. No company should be able to listen to you without your knowledge. There should be a light on anytime it’s listening to me. But from the over use and binging side, there’s not an easy solve. Just like there’s not an easy solve for fast food and junk food.

Kind of like the calorie signs, or the nutritional value on the package of what you’re eating. More transparency.

But here’s the problem: People believe what they want to believe. And so when I get up at Stanford and say: “Hey look! I’m doing research that shows that email is flattening our social landscape and by inference, I believe you’re getting unhappier the more you use email,” – they don’t want to hear that. They didn’t want to believe that this great thing that they were using in business and all aspects of their life, would ultimately make them less connected to people that matter. Today, I think I’d have a much more receptive audience. I mean, it’s a system we can’t escape from and it’s just awful. The whole email thing. You can shine a light on the downsides of spending all day on Facebook or Youtube, but people generally believe what they want to believe and if they want to spend a lot of time comparing themselves to others, I don’t think there is much you can do.

What is something that sticks out as only positive when you look back at persuasive technology?

When I first started doing stuff with my lab, probably ten years ago, we were focusing on how technology could create more peace in the world. We called it peace innovation. We wanted companies to create these pages to talk about how technology is bringing people together in the world and we met with some people at Facebook and made the page peace.facebook.com. It had a really great graphic showing day by day how many people from areas in conflict with each other around the world they were connecting that would ordinarily just be siloed. And what I learned through that project is that the people we worked with at Facebook really do want to make the world a better place. Generally. They’re mission-driven. But then on the other hand, they have a financial obligation. I would expect there’s a lot of tension between, “How are we helping our users?”, “How are we exploiting our users?”, and “How do we figure out that balance in light of us being a for-profit company.”

Personally, I know so little about what really goes on in these institutions, which is probably how most people feel. I don’t really understand what’s going on, but I’m using it and that’s a little bit scary.

Yeah, I mean, there are some general trends and then there’s like the nuances or kind of the subsets. The subset of someone who’s on Instagram comparing themselves constantly and feeling less and less capable. That’s not like my neighbours are using Instagram, for example. That’s kind of a subset. I don’t want to call it a detail because it’s really important, but the trends of using technology instead of more traditional ways of interacting and the effects of that – I think that’s a general trend. Like the email and the texting rather than the phone call. Even the way we share photos now.

Do you see a return from the digital to the physical as possible at this point?

I have this little photo printer that I take to parties and I print up actual photos and people are like, “Oh my gosh, I haven’t held a photograph in years,” right? So to reclaim the physical: I took a picture and here it is. Sharing in this digital way isn’t as satisfying. Amazon – same trend, right? But nobody is really concerned about that.

What do you mean?

We’re using Amazon more and more and using the local stores less and less. And we’re actually buying more now through Amazon than we did before. Then all these boxes come and it’s like, “If I had just gone down the store and got this book …” But people aren’t asking policymakers to change the laws around Amazon. They’ve made it so easy to do what we want them to do. Like, order a guitar or order some sprouts. It’s just changing how we interact with other humans and almost always it’s for the worse. When you put together the impact of humans and our social relationships, the net – it’s a negative.

It just goes to show that we all just want to be as comfortable and lazy as possible in the end. So, we don’t question that our local store isn’t getting as much business because we’re profiting from it as individuals. As soon as it affects us personally, then, all of a sudden, we become alarmed.

Yeah, and the Amazon thing is very seductive. That’s why they’re putting a device in our home. That’s still a sleeper. People haven’t really freaked out or said how big a deal that is, but it’s a huge deal. Eventually I’ll just say, “Amazon, bring lunch in in 30 minutes.” And they will. But from what perspective do you view it? I tend to view everything in terms of relationships and the importance of relationships. Our strongest relationships have and will continue to get weaker, and when I say our strongest, I mean those 3 to 6 close relationships. There’s a researcher whose work I really admire named Roy Baumeister, and he’s pretty much mapped out convincingly that you can only have six super close relationships – and most people don’t have that many, they have one or two – but those are the relationships that really matter and really make you happy. We’re losing those because now we have hundreds and hundreds of weak relationships because technology and the culture of using it allows that to happen. It’s really troubling. The moment when you get stranded at the airport, who’s going to come pick you up? Or you have a 2am crisis in your home, who do you call? Who do you say to, “Come over right now.” I can’t go to Twitter and say, ”Hey 40,000 followers, somebody show up at the house tonight because my dog’s really sick and I need a ride to the vet.”

But so, on the one hand you’re trusting about people wanting to do good with technology and things changing for the better, and on the other hand you’re concerned that we are ruining our relationships through social media?

Yes. And so, I help conservation groups, I help health groups, I help the good financial institutions. Technology is not how I frame my work anymore because it’s everywhere. It’s not that interesting anymore. When I was starting my lab at Stanford, we were cataloguing persuasive technologies and we got to 80. I was like “Oh my gosh, there are 80 persuasive technologies!” At the time, they were just emerging and most of the people creating them didn’t know about my work. They were just using technology to get people to do stuff. Nowadays, there’s no way you could count all of them. It’s hard to find any technology that’s not trying to influence you to do something. I mean, except for calculators. The way I think of my work is more that I know a lot about how human behavior works. I’ve created methods where people can be efficient in getting people to vote a certain way or donate money or exercise more. At the end of my classes, I almost always say: “Ok, I taught you some really powerful stuff. It’s your responsibility to do good things with this. Go out and do good things.” Because it is powerful and it does give the companies and organizations an opportunity to do something they couldn’t do otherwise. That’s a judgment call on my side.

Did you ever regret teaching a certain organisation?

I have worked for three or four companies, where I went and taught some of my work that I regret. But I can count those companies on one hand.

And did you see then how those companies implemented what you had taught them?

I mean, in one case I just went and gave a keynote to 600 people in a marketing department. I don’t know what they did with it, but I had misgivings about going there. And then in another case, it was … it was military-related. And I’m really weary about that. So, I got in touch with one of my mentors and I was like, “I don’t know about this.” And he, who is like the most peaceful person, he said, “No, they need to hear your perspective.” And I actually went there and kind of called them out and said, ”You need to be creating peace.” They came up to me afterwards and said, “We agree with you, but we have a commander-in-chief right now that thinks otherwise.” So I got an insight into the military, and the conflict between – it was George Bush at the time – the commander-in-chief, and the military people. And these were like, high-level people. Now, would I do that again? I don’t know. There are some things I don’t want to get involved in. There are people that will go and work for anyone if you write them a check, but that’s not me.

Have you used your behaviour designs in your personal life?

All. The. Time. Oh yeah, I mean, once you have a set of skills where you can change your life and change the world around you, of course you use them all the time without even thinking. I’m really into growing sprouts, for example. Like alfalfa and lentil sprouts and I always want fresh sprouts that I have grown myself. That’s the outcome that I want. What do I have to do to get that done? I bought the gear to make it easier to do. I set up the habit. I have these little mason jars and twice a day I rinse them and then, it was kind of a problem because the water would drip all over the place. So rather than let that be a nuisance I went systematically through, “How do I solve that?” Now my whole system for doing the sprouts is very effective and it’s changed my behavior. Part of the behavior design process is: if it doesn’t work, try something else. You iterate until you get the routine or the setup that works for you. In my bathroom I have a kettlebell and I’ve lifted it walking in the bathroom 15 or 20 times today. I’ve done ten to 20 push-ups this morning. That’s all the result of behavior design. In my home office, I have one of those huge bounce balls. I have a little, a myofascial release thing, and I have a balance thing called an Indo Board. And I have a calf stretcher. So usually while I’m on the phone, I’m doing something like that. Part of behavior design is understanding that you can change your behavior by changing your environment. When I have these tools around, I’m much more likely to use them.

That makes sense.

Oh, and I have a stand-up desk. That almost goes without saying. I have two stand-up desks, actually. I pretty much never sit down. Behavior change is a skill – The more you practice, the better you get. And the more skills you get, the easier it is to change your life. Say, you really want to get better sleep. Well, guess what? You can behavior design for the outcome of you getting better sleep and it can be a systematic approach. You design for the outcomes you want. You don’t motivate behavior change. It’s a design challenge, not a motivation challenge.

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