Captology: A Critical Review

Bernardine M.C. Atkinson, in Persuasive Technology: First International Conference, 2006

This essay is Atkinson’s critique of 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 for improvement. I had read Persuasive Technology prior to reading Atkinson’s review, and while I viewed Persuasive Technology quite favorably, I was intrigued by a few of the points that Atkinson addresses. I find Atkinson’s concern about the ethical issue of persuasion in general most 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, stating 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 has some persuasive elements, 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. I believe that my thesis lies somewhere within 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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