Can computers be persuasive?

Computers and smart phones have become essential in our day-to-day lives but are the devices doing more than providing us with information? Can they also influence our behaviour?

A University of Aberdeen academic will examine how technology can be persuasive in the latest in the popular series of Café Scientifique Aberdeenshire events to be held in Banchory on Tuesday March 15, part of the programme to celebrate National Science and Engineering Week.

Hien Nguyen, a computing science research fellow from dot.rural – the University of Aberdeen’s research hub which is investigating how digital technologies could transform rural communities, society and business - will look at how technology and psychology combine to influence our choices in the digital age.

“Computers used to be relatively simple but in the last 10 years or so we have seen a huge growth in more ‘intelligent’ systems which can influence our behaviours by making themselves present when we need them and are easier to use” he said.

 “Advances in smart phones, social networking, and data tracking technology can help these systems become more effective by allowing them to sense our every move - where we are, who we hang out with, and the websites we visit the most.

“Never before have designers know this much about a user and by combining this with research in to psychology, computers could potentially become a powerful persuasive channel.”

Hien said the online world was becoming more aware of how the language used and the presentation of information can influence our choices, in the same way that supermarkets lay out their produce to influence what we buy.

“In the past when there were fewer websites being usable was probably enough but nowadays there are so many websites offering the same thing that they have to be able to convince people to stay and look at the information they contain,” he added.

“Websites now have the ability to ‘learn’, so for example Google learns from a user’s web history to point them towards information about products or services in their own local area, and Amazon learns from previous behaviour to recommend items that may be of interest based on previous internet activity.

“With the increase in smart phone technology this could go even further – recommending ways in which we can be more physically active such as sending a text to tell us how long it would take to walk to a destination from where we have parked the car.

“This may all be helpful but what as consumers can we do to retain our freedom of choice in the digital age? This is something I will explore for Café Scientifique.”

The event will take place in Buchanan’s Cafe at Banchory’s Woodend Barn at 7.30pm. Entry is free but booking is required by calling Woodend Barn on 01330 825431.

Café Scientifique Aberdeenshire is part of the University of Aberdeen’s Café Scientifique series which is supported by a Science Engagement grant from the Scottish Government. For more information see: