Minding your p's and q's with your laptop

Author Clifford Nass.

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Kai Ryssdal: Anybody who spends a lot of time in front of a computer has had their fair share of freeze-ups and glitches. Often followed by something like "oh, c'mon" or "not now" or other things you can't say on a family radio program. If you think about it, you're basically responding to your computer the way you might respond to a person who had done something to you. In his latest book "The Man Who Lied to His Laptop," Clifford Nass explores our relationship with technology and what that might mean for good old human interaction.

Welcome to the program.

Clifford Nass:Thank you, delighted to be here.

RYSSDAL: How do you know what you know about how people and computers and technology interact? Is this lab work you've been doing?

NASS: Exactly. We've done over 100 experiments in the laboratory with people -- with a large number of people, all types of people -- to understand not just how people treat technology, but even more importantly, how people can effectively treat each other.

RYSSDAL: Well, let's take the technology part first, because a computer's a tool, right? You sit down, you log in, you do your work, you go home and check your e-mail and that's the end of it.

NASS: Well people often think that computers are only a tool, but in fact, our research has shown that people apply an enormous range of social rules and expectations when dealing with computers and other technologies. So even though they deny it, and even though they don't know it, they have actually have rich social relationships with even the simplest computer.

RYSSDAL: Alright, that sounds a little bit weird, I gotta tell ya.

NASS: It is weird; it surprised the heck out of us. But in study after study, we've found people being polite to computers, treating computers like their teammates, accepting flattery from a computer.

RYSSDAL: Give me an example, this is more than somebody just saying, "Ooh, I love my iPhone, man."

NASS: Exactly. So for example, if you asked me how I like your show, I'd obviously say extremely positive things, of course.

RYSSDAL: Of course.

NASS: And the reason is we want to be polite to people that ask about themselves. In our study, we had people work with a computer and either the computer they worked with or a computer across the room said, "How well did the computer do?" And sure enough, people said nicer things to the computer that asked about itself. Our brains tell us when we're dealing with something that uses language or interacts with us, we have to treat it like a person.

RYSSDAL: So if computers give us feedback that is positive and warm -- and I'm trying to imagine an example and maybe you can help me with that -- but if they give us feedback that is positive and warm and good, then we will be more productive human beings.

NASS: Absolutely. Right now when you get your spelling checked, all it does is tell you "wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong." But what if the computer said to you, "Gee, I notice your spelling's improving," whether in fact it's improving or not. It turns out that not only do people like the computer more, they actually think it caught more errors and are willing to pay more for it.

RYSSDAL: Play this out for more in a human-to-human relationship in the office everyday, how might this apply?

NASS: For example, in the case of flattery, generally when we see people in the office, we're very quick to tell them negative things they did wrong. And in fact, what the research shows is the opposite is much better, we should be much more aggressive and active in praising, and much less active and aggressive in criticizing.

RYSSDAL: This is going to sound terrible, but this whole conversation makes me despair a little bit for human beings. We're just so shallow that we're so easily manipulatable.

NASS: Well, you can look at it that way, that this is manipulation, or we can look at the reason that we evolve rules of politeness and such, which is one of our goals should be to make people happier and better. And if these rules will help our friends and colleagues be happier and better and create better relationships for us, I don't think that's manipulation. I think that's really serving a public good.

RYSSDAL: Cliff Nass teaches at Stanford University. His book is called "The Man Who Lied to His Laptop: What Machines Tell Us About Human Relationship." Cliff, thanks a lot.

NASS: My pleasure, thank you.

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