Persuasion technology

Persuasion technology is technology that can be used for presenting or promoting a point of view. Any technology designed and deployed for those purposes can be considered a persuasion technology. Such aids are regularly used in sales, diplomacy, politics, religion, military training, cult recruiting and management, and may potentially be used in any area of human interaction.

Generally, persuasion technology is used to augment a human face-to-face or voice interaction, particularly in a selling or other situation where the persuader or 'seller' seeks to gain an edge on the recruit or 'buyer'. In this general sense, 'sellers' can be those promoting any particular point of view, and 'buyers' anyone they attempt to recruit. Political or religious views can be (and often are) promoted using the same general methods and technologies.



Examples of technologies that can be used for persuasive purposes are:

Some technologies are used primarily for overt persuasion. Others are more suitable for a more subtle covert approach. However most can be used either way.


Persuasion is as old as humanity itself, and records exist to show that the available technology of the day has been used to assist with persuasion for many thousands of years, and has evolved over the centuries to become more effective. The earliest persuasive technologies were those that facilitated verbal communication. The first major advancement though was the technology that facilitated books, flyers, pamphlets, billboards and other forms of widely reproduced written and later visual communication. Sometimes these have a profound effect on culture - for example the Shanghai lady image in 1930s China. Today there are a plethora of electronic technologies that can be used for persuasive purposes.

The key difference between "persuasion technology" in the modern sense and the persuasion that might have been used by a Roman emperor or a radical cleric supporting the reformation is the degree of reciprocal technical equality. In ordinary conversation unaided by persuasive technology, an individual may be more eloquent and persuasive than another individual, depending on their relative talents and training. But persuasive technology can give one interlocutor a technological edge and this might be the decisive factor. Improving intrusive technology e.g. RFID tags make this a rather more subversive process.

There are recorded incidences of carpenters or stonemasons defeating highly respected scholars in classical rhetorical history. This would be more difficult today. Carpenters and stonemasons generally do not have the same access to persuasive technology as experts do.

Reciprocal equality

What distinguishes a persuasion technology from simple "persuasion" is that the individual being persuaded cannot easily respond by creating an equally effective counter-presentation in real time - a lack of reciprocal equality. The means used to achieve this dominance or advantage can be considered in two classes:

  • Physical persuasion tools (usually electronic) which can be used to skew the balance of persuasive power between the participants. Examples include computers, broadcast equipment, pamphlets, photographs, charts, and the like.
  • Methods of persuasion. These combine psychology with careful preparation. Salespeople and other professional persuaders, are commonly trained to work within a carefully prepared conceptual framework and have a series of contingency plans which structure and clarify the customer interaction for them. Whereas a typical buyer or recruit is interacting on an ad hoc basis, a well-trained and well-prepared persuader has a ready-made set of psychologically tested and effective strategies to deal with objections and overcome resistance. Supporters of the theory claim that the difference between mere salesmanship and a persuasion technology is the utilisation of well-researched quasi-scientific psychological (some say psychological warfare) methods to develop persuasive strategies and train the persuaders.

Criticisms of the theory

Detractors of the theory say that salesmanship, is as old as commerce itself, and persuasion is as old as human interactions. They claim that persuaders have always had the advantage in knowledge, preparedness, persuasion tools, and the researching of persuasive techniques. They claim that even though it is true that persuaders have become better at their art, the recruits have also become more sophisticated. Most people today are critical, even cynical, of persuasive techniques. The imbalance has not changed very much over the centuries. Some would even argue that parents today with all their persuasive technology, are not as effective in persuading their children as they were in previous centuries when children were relatively unaware of persuasive techniques. Advertisers claim that to be effective today, a message must be much more persuasive than decades ago and the reason they give is that the viewers of advertisements have become persuasion savvy. Viewers of persuasive technology today see it as a game or a challenge: they no longer see an advertisement as a credible source of information. The only solution to any imbalance that might exist, according to the detractors, is the further education of recruits and the wider dissemination of persuasion technology to all. This is the only way of creating a "level playing field". To the detractors, persuasion technology is a force for good. If there is a villain in this drama, it is the ignorance of those that can be easily influenced because of their reluctance to embrace and understand persuasive technologies and techniques.

Detractors also see a serious logical flaw in the argument that a well researched persuasive technique gives a persuasive advantage relative to an equivalent and just as effective persuasive technique that has not been researched.

Detractors also claim that the division of technology into two types, persuasive and non-persuasive, is a false dichotomy. Neither persuasive nor non-persuasive technology exists. All technology can be used for persuasive purposes. And all technology can be used for non-persuasive purposes. Even the most overtly persuasive technology, advertising, need not be persuasive. Marketers use advertisements for three purposes : 1) persuasion, 2) dissemination of information (useful during a new product launch or any time the consumer is not familiar with a product or how to use it), and 3) institutional (just getting the name of the company or institution out to the people). It is better to think of this division as two fictitious terminal points on a continuum. All real technologies lay on the continuum and can be categorized only by differences in degree, not differences in kind. So called persuasive technology is merely technology that tends to be used for persuasive purposes more often than so called non-persuasive technology.

Socio-political concerns

On the broader macro level, some types of persuasion technology (such as mass media) are largely controlled by a select few individuals. Alternative view points are seldom presented. Because media is paid for by advertising, advertisers tend to have an editorial influence too. It becomes quite difficult to establish any equality between those who control the media and their guests, and those who would wish to challenge them. Edward S. Herman has written extensively on this topic, and considers it a major social question. Concern has been expressed that such techniques disempower those who do not have knowledge of them and access to them. This is of particular concern in a democracy.

Use in business

Interestingly, the computer industry itself provides some examples of rejecting certain technologies simply for their power to persuade. Scott McNealy of Sun Microsystems declared his company a PowerPoint-Free Zone, which was seen as a simple attack on his rival Bill Gates of Microsoft. But Lou Gerstner of IBM went further, and declared that no presentation technology at all would be used in his office, but that proposals would have to be presented on a single overhead slide with a single color of marker. He spoke strongly against the distraction of effort into persuasive presentations, and away from the core elements of business cases and real customer service. He did not, unlike Sun, ban his own salespeople from using these, a tacit acknowledgement that there was indeed power to sway decisions in such methods and technologies, and that he considered it an obligation to stockholders not to be himself swayed by it in his own office.

Use in education

Edward Tufte has decried the use of persuasion technology and the adoption of its style in education. "Particularly disturbing is the adoption of the PowerPoint cognitive style in our schools. Rather than learning to write a report using sentences, children are being taught how to formulate client pitches and infomercials. Elementary school PowerPoint exercises (as seen in teacher guides and in student work posted on the Internet) typically consist of 10 to 20 words and a piece of clip art on each slide in a presentation of three to six slides -a total of perhaps 80 words (15 seconds of silent reading) for a week of work. Students would be better off if the schools simply closed down on those days and everyone went to the Exploratorium or wrote an illustrated essay explaining something." [1] (

Related topics

Other subjects that are not normally considered part of persuasion technology but which have some overlap or features in common with it include:

See also

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