March 25, 1996

Interactions: I'm O.K., My PC's O.K.


PALO ALTO, Calif. -- It pays to treat computers politely. They can be jerks and bullies. But they can also be friends and teammates, and their praise is high praise indeed.

If all that makes perfect sense to you, then you, too, suffer from what two Stanford University professors believe is a universal syndrome: the practice of perceiving machine as man, of reacting to your laptop almost as if it is a little person sitting on your knees.

Byron Reeves and Clifford Nass of Stanford's Center for the Study of Language and Information sum up the results of 35 studies they have done, in the following academese: "Individuals interact with communications technologies in fundamentally social and natural ways."

Then they translate. People know intellectually that the glowing screen before them is not flesh and blood, but viscerally their ability to distinguish between another person and a language-using machine remains faulty.

"At a very basic level, there's no switch in the brain that turns one way to media and one way to real life," Reeves said.

The two have found that, for example, people are polite to computers: When they are asked to evaluate a computer's performance, they tend to assess the one they are using more positively than others -- just as people tend to praise other people more to their faces than behind their backs.

People also swell with pride when flattered by computers, the professors have found, even when they have been told the praise is random.

And when a computer uses a female voice, people tend to perceive it as more nurturing, while male voices are seen as having more authority on technical matters.

Another study determined that people with dominant personalities tend to like a computer that uses assertive language in its on-screen messages, thus coming across as another dominant personality, while submissive people tend to like submissive-sounding computers that, instead of dictating, query tentatively, "What about maybe trying it this way?"

These studies and others like them are to be published in August by Cambridge University Press in a book titled "The Media Equation: How People Treat Computers, Television and New Media as Real People and Places."

These responses to computers as beings, the professors say, are almost unconscious.

"No one thinks they're doing these things," Reeves said. "None of the people say, 'Of course I was being polite to the computer.' "

Nass, 38, came from the world of hard-core computer science, and Reeves, 46, has a background in television. They design their research by taking findings on person-to-person responses and testing whether they apply to person-to-computer interaction. They use traditional psychological methods for measuring reactions, such as monitoring brain activity and skin response, as well as questionnaires.

"There's 100 years of psychology research to steal," Nass said, joking. "We're busy as heck."

In one study they took psychology findings that people tend to react more positively to people they perceive as teammates and tried an almost laughably primitive experiment.

They put a prominent green frame around a computer, then gave some of their research subjects green armbands and some blue; those with green armbands assessed the computer more favorably.

The point of all this research, apart from casting light on some fascinating aspects of how the brain deals with technology, is to provide fundamental guidance to computer and software designers.

Such simple findings as the powerful effect flattery has on a user, Nass said, have implications for programs like spelling-checkers: Instead of only criticizing spelling, they might do well to praise users for getting a lot of words right from time to time.

More broadly, the research might help computer makers design the right types of virtual personalities to appeal to buyers, developing computerized allies that may someday soon be reminiscent of Hal, the deep-voiced computer companion in "2001: A Space Odyssey."

"If you think of Hal as the Holy Grail," Reeves said, "You really do have a good abbreviation of where we think it's going."

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