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Biology, Learning, Psychology, Sport, Sustainability

How persuasive is your technology?

In the final week of Black History Month, I went looking for a Black researcher to profile and, thanks to Twitter and the hashtag BlackSTEM, I found Rita Orji, a Computer Science professor at Dalhousie University. So, today’s post is all about a review of the literature on persuasive technology for health and wellness by Orji and Moffatt (2018).

I have them, the apps for tracking my eating habits (My Fitness Pal), the ones for logging my strength workouts (JEFIT), the ones for celebrating small victories (SuperBetter), and the general, have you moved enough this week (Google Fit). Some of these I’m better at using than others. Google Fit I use basically daily, but SuperBetter and My Fitness Pal come and go as needed. But how successful are these types of persuasive technologies: that is, technologies that encourage and support people in doing positive behaviours and/or discourage us from doing negative ones?

While the research indicates that these persuasive technologies (which include more than just mobile apps) appear to be effective at promoting different health and wellness behaviours overall, there were differences between different types of behaviors. Technologies that promote a reduction in or stopping smoking and substance abuse were the least successful, while improving dental health, promoting healthy sexual behaviours, healthy eating, and physical activity were most effective. Of course, the authors note that since all the studies used different methodologies and had varying sample sizes and sample populations, they can’t really conclude that these results would be generalizable.

Another weakness of the literature that was reviewed is that there have not been significant longitudinal evaluations. In other words, do these technologies continue to work over time? In addition, most of the technologies and the corresponding research do not appear to draw on established theories of behavior, likely because the technology developers do not have this background.

So, why does this matter? I’m an active, generally healthy person and I use persuasive technology apps to help track my progress and motivate me. I like seeing how many elephants or semi-trucks I’ve lifted in a workout with JEFIT and I enjoy getting points for doing workouts on Google Fit. When I track what I’m eating it tends to be more informational, am I getting enough iron as a switch to a more vegetarian diet. With this one, I tend to track, make a change, track, and then leave it alone for a while. So, they do help me to be healthier, but I wouldn’t be unhealthy to begin with. The real benefit of these technologies is if they can help shift someone towards a healthier lifestyle and based on the review discussed they can, at least with some behaviours.

Coming from the field of sustainability, I’d be curious if they can help promote more sustainable behaviours as well. What would happen if you got points for every day you put on a sweater instead of turning up the heat in your house, or if you found out how many trees you had saved every time you choose not to print something, or if some goofy animated squirrel did a dance when I pick up and throw out a piece of litter? (Okay, I really want the dancing squirrel now.) Perhaps I could even earn points by identifying local plants or wildlife as I go for a hike. Technology is part of our lives; I believe that we need to leverage it to create positive change in our world and figuring out whether and if things like persuasive technologies work is an important step in that direction.

I am unaffiliated with all of the apps linked in this post, they are simply the ones that I have found useful and willing to share.

About Tai Munro

I am passionate about making science, sustainability, and sport accessible through engaging information and activities.


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