Apart from the beautifully pointless webpage leekspin.com (be careful, it sings), most websites are designed with a specific, utilitarian purpose in mind. Whether to entertain, inform or convince, the end goal is usually to persuade you into changing your attitudes, behaviour or both.
Everyone who uses the internet is inevitably affected by these attempts to influence, whether as a business (usually the ones doing the persuading) or a visitor (usually the target).
In this month’s blog post, we’ll take a closer look at what persuasion really is, where to draw the line between influence and manipulation, and how you can use these insights ethically in your own website, or as a defence against the dark arts.
How does persuasion differ from coercion and manipulation?
First things first – in one of our previous blog posts, we talked about manipulative user interfaces, also referred to as dark-patterns.
How is what we’re talking about today any better than what we called into question three months ago?
Like coercion or deception, persuasion intends to influence how we think, feel or act. However, unlike its shadowy relatives, persuasion leaves the power to decide (and the knowledge necessary to do so) with the user – we’re free to act of our own will, without being forced or duped into doing something we’d rather not.
That said, trying to influence people’s decisions in an ethical way (as opposed to tricking them into unwanted actions) can be a fine line to tread. When you’ve got an unrealistic sales target and a numbers-focussed manager breathing down your neck, it’s easy to think “Well, why bother?”
But employing coercive tactics to achieve short-term gains may not only erode your business’s credibility and trustworthiness, it can also jeopardise the vital relationships you’ve worked to build with your customers. If you want to learn more about how to make this distinction and design for good, you can check out our blog post on dark patters and ask yourself, “How does this design decision empower my customer to achieve their goals?”
So, how does it work?
In psychological terms, persuasion influences individuals through (non-)verbal symbols that elicit relevant emotions or appeal to rational thinking, either by mediating a message or through the design of the website itself.
Cognitive psychology can help us understand how persuasive messages create and change attitudes through one of two routes of information processing.
The first way to process information is called the central route. This is when you analyse the content of the message in a considered, critical way, so as to arrive at a decision. However, whether you process a particular message using the central route depends on your motivation, cognitive resources and ability, which in turn depend on your individual characteristics and the situation you’re in. Only if you (the receiver) are motivated to attend to the information and do so successfully, will a persuasive message be processed via the central route.
The second way to process information is through the peripheral route, which happens when we rely on rules of thumb or simple cues to evaluate whether to trust the sender and their message. We take this route when we’re less motivated or capable to deeply contemplate the information we’re given. Generally, the information we process centrally is more intense, more resistant over time, and less susceptible to counter-arguments (Petty & Cacioppo, 1986).
Two routes to persuasion
The dual-route Elaboration Likelihood Model outlined above shares some commonalities with the distinction between System 1 and System 2, terms coined by Stanovich and West’s (2000) dual process theory which was popularised by Daniel Kahneman. In his nobel prize lecture (2002), Kahneman explains that information processing takes place in one of two systems, which process incoming information differently:
The operations of System 1 are fast, automatic, effortless, associative, and difficult to control or modify.
The operations of System 2 are slower, serial, effortful, and deliberately controlled; they are also relatively flexible and potentially rule-governed.
This model is built on the observation that we’re not perfect at processing the myriad data we encounter in our everyday lives. Rather, we are cognitively limited, and in order to preserve our finite cognitive resources we only use them when necessary. This is why System 1 (which requires fewer cognitive resources then deliberately controlled thought processes) is the system that frequently processes incoming information.
Influence online can appeal to either of these 2 routes or systems to change our attitudes and behaviour, either by:
- Providing intelligible, credible and coherent arguments that convince without overwhelming, or
- Persuading with emotional appeals that take into account heuristics in human decision-making
How to apply it
- This article by Jennifer Cardello (Nielsen Norman, 2013), which advise anyone who is building a website to reduce the cognitive effort required by those who frequent the webpage. She demonstrates a few particularly difficult and straining elements on web pages, and provides concrete, practical advice and examples of how to do it better.
- Victor Yocco (2014) explains how the elaboration likelihood model can be applied to design, and features real-world examples to illustrate his points.
More on the theory itself
- A transcript of Kahneman’s Nobel Prize Lecture (2002), “Maps of Bounded Rationality: A Perspective on Intuitive Judgment and Choice” on the two systems and the heuristics at work. There is also a video of this lecture.
- The original article by Petty and Cacioppo (1986) on the Elaboration Likelihood Model.
- This article by Harjumaa and Oinas-Kukkonen (2007) on Persuasion Theories and IT Design, which also refers to the Elaboration Likelihood Model and other relevant theories.
The standard theory of influence
If you’re interested in persuasion, you’ll have no doubt heard of Robert Cialdini’s famous book Influence: Science & Practice and Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. Having sold over three million copies since its publication in 1984, it is the single most popular theory referred to on the subject of influence.
In it, Cialdini proposes that most of the heuristics at work when we engage System 1 / the peripheral route (i.e. when we processing information using cues and heuristics) can be grouped into six categories.
It’s these six factors (reciprocation, commitment and consistency, social proof, liking, authority and scarcity) that drive us to act in accordance with a persuasive message – but because so many good and thorough applications of his ideas to web psychology have been made by various authors, we will not go into depth on his ideas in this blog post.
- If you want to learn more about his work, have a look at his best-selling book or this short summary of the six factors with an accompanying video.
- If you are interested in how to apply these principles to web design, check out this blog post with detailed examples of how Cialdini’s principles can be found online.
- This infogram addresses several points pertaining to online persuasion not yet touched upon in this post, such as colour, private information and positive reinforcement.
- BJ Fogg is a scientist and expert at creating systems that change human behaviour. In this article, he explains how he categorises possible attempts at behaviour change into 35 distinct categories, which of them work best for mobile applications, and how each cell of the grid is associated with a different type of behavioural change, schedule of change, set of psychological theories, persuasion strategies and design techniques. He illustrates the various possible attempts at behaviour changes with reference to real world examples from Facebook interfaces.
- Efthymios Constantinides explains in his scientific article on Influencing the online consumer’s behaviour: the Web experience how to persuade consumers by shaping their virtual experience.
- Harjumaa and Oinas-Kukkonen (2009) introduce a new framework for Persuasive Systems Design that is concerned with designing and evaluating persuasive systems alongside 28 design principles for persuasive system content and functionality including several examples.
How can you guard yourself online?
Similar to the way in which we can inoculate ourselves to avoid infection, when it comes to persuasion, our existing attitudes can be inoculated from strong counter-arguments by first questioning them with weak counter-arguments.
This strategy can help us resist other people’s attempts to persuade us that our strongly-held beliefs are wrong.
Basically, if we question and reaffirm our own beliefs critically and frequently, it will help us understand why we believe in what we believe, as well as enable us to hold on to these beliefs when we encounter a persuasive message that opposes it. There’s some fascinating research out there on inoculation theory, and if you’d like to find out more you can read this blog post by Steve Booth-Butterfield, or this academic meta-analysis by John A. Banas & Stephen A. Rains (2010).
Similarly, taking the time and effort to process information consciously when you are about to make an important decision can help you both question and double-check your assumptions, and avoid focusing on irrelevant information. If, when online, you spot the tell-tale signs of dark patterns at work, you can do yourself and Harry Brignull at darkpatterns.org a favour and report the dark pattern you’ve found.
Being aware of the persuasion principles outlined above and taking a look at the dark patterns described in our previous blog post can help you identify and disarm these techniques, and enable you to put yourself firmly back in the driving seat.
Whether you’re designing websites to attract and convert customers, or you’re frequenting a website as a visitor, the principles of persuasion will impact your behaviour one way or another.
As a business or designer, understanding the cognitive limits of your users and the two ways in which we process information will allow you to make the information on your site easier to process.
- If your users are likely to have time and energy to put effort into a decision they really care about, appealing to their deliberate System 2 (the central route / rational thinking) makes most sense.
- If they have less time, less motivation, and are willing to expend less effort, appealing to them with the help of cues and heuristics will be a smarter choice.
- Knowing the six main principles that influence us online can help you design a website that persuades your customer to see your service or product in a good light. Asking yourself whether the online interaction you provide for your customer truly serves their interest (or only yours) will help you avoid dark patterns.
As a visitor, being able to identify the various techniques that are employed online can help you not only guard against undue influence, but also to decide whether a particular choice matters enough to you to slow down, and make it deliberately and consciously.