The ethics of persuasion

I recently read “Captology: A Critical Review” by Bernardine M.C. Atkinson, in PERSUASIVE 2006, pages 171-182, W. IJsselsteijn et al. (eds).

Atkinson looks at B.J. Fogg’s Persuasive Technology: Using Computers to Change What We Think and Do. She outlines the major issues she has with Fogg’s work and suggests areas of improvement. I had read Persuasive Technology prior to reading Atkinson’s review, and was bothered by a few of the same issues that she addresses. There are 3 major points covered by Atkinson: the lack of a rigorous definition of persuasion; general issues with ambivalent usage of language, and finally, the overall ethical issue of persuasion. The latter point is one that I find particularly interesting.

To begin her paper, Atkinson quotes Robert Johnson’s review, which states that because captology, according to Fogg’s own definition, does not include unintended consequences, “an ethical impasse is created” (171). Atkinson herself concludes that it is only ethical to attempt to change someone’s attitude, belief, or behavior if the user is “aware of the intention from the outset of their participation with the program. Anything that occludes this function is a form of manipulation” (179). She also suggests that advocacy and education could be perhaps more “benevolent” tools of communication, that

“Exposure to both is cognitively enriching and can result in attitude, belief, and behavioral change, but both remain respectful of the individual’s own ability to synthesize the offerings provided by new information into a worldview that is meaningful for that individual” (180).

Personally, I do not believe persuasion is inherently wrong, and I do believe that all design is persuasive, in the sense that designers utilize rhetoric and make choices of what to include and what to emphasize in their work (however subtle this might be). Nevertheless, Atkinson’s review is, for me, a welcome viewpoint. As I have written in other places, I believe that my thesis lies somewhere on the intersection of education and persuasion. Because of this, I wonder whether Atkinson would argue that advocacy, education, and persuasion are mutually exclusive, or whether they can be used in differing amounts depending on the situation.

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