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November 2022   |   Volume 24 No. 1

Cover Story

Press for Success

The way we physically interact with technology can influence our choices and even our behaviour.

Many of us have good intentions when it comes to staying healthy, but often we get sidetracked by the easy way out – for instance, ordering French fries rather than salad at a restaurant or online, or spending most of our time at the gym scrolling through our phones rather than lifting weights. In psychological terms, these are problems of self-regulation. But a study led by Professor Jack Jiang, Padma and Hari Harilela Professor in Strategic Information Management, of the HKU Business School shows that technology can induce us to make better choices just by making small changes to the way we interact with it.

Focussing on smartphones, the study asked people to choose from a list of options on a phone provided to them that had been modified to require users to either tap lightly using gentle exertion, or press hard, which requires extra force. Pressing was expected to enhance self-regulation and the study bore this out: people who pressed hard not only ended up making healthier choices, but subsequently exhibited healthier behaviour.

“We’re trying to understand how a ‘digital nudge’ can fundamentally influence people’s behaviour,” Dr Jiang said. “Other researchers have commonly observed that people’s beliefs drive their behaviour, but we find something opposite. We change behaviour first and it influences beliefs.”

A digital nudge happens when people are not deliberating on their actions but performing them almost automatically, opening a window for influencing behaviour. Earlier research showed that when people have to exert more muscular strength in a task, they feel more determined to act in other ways. Taking up that idea, Dr Jiang devised three experiments that used pressing or tapping on phones to test the digital nudge effect.

Tapping out

The first experiment took place in a university canteen where students were invited to a table and invited to select a beverage for free on a smartphone. There were four beverages, two healthy but not tasty (such as a vegetable drink) and two tasty but not healthy (such as a soft drink). Unknown to the students, participants were divided into two groups, with one group having to press hard on the screen to answer the questions and the other group simply tapping the screen. The result was that those who pressed hard were more likely to choose the healthy drink. The effect was strongest among students who had shown a higher level of health knowledge.

The second experiment took place outside a gym of a community centre where participants were first asked to indicate how much exercise they intended to do on a smartphone; they then reported back after exercising to receive a small cash award. Those who had to press hard set more challenging exercise goals and actually reported doing more exercise. This was especially the case for participants who indicated that they exercise to improve their fitness rather than simply prevent physical deterioration.

The third experiment was particularly relevant to the context of the COVID-19 pandemic: it set out to see if pressing or tapping would influence people’s hygiene practices. Participants were asked to read educational materials about hygiene through a mobile device, then observed as they moved to a separate room and were asked to recommend personal hygiene products, such as masks and disinfectants, for university purchase. The aim was to see if pressing was more likely to induce them to follow the advice contained in the educational materials.

Failing the test

They were greeted at the door with an offer of a handshake (this is not advised for infection control), asked to use another smartphone that looked dirty (disinfectant wipes were placed on a table that they could access if they wished), and observed to see whether and how often they touched the outer surface of their mask and kept at least one metre distance from each other. Those who failed the test shook hands, did not clean the phone, touched their mask and stood too close to others.

In all cases, people who had tapped rather than pressed at the start, when reading about hygiene, were more likely to ‘fail’ and adopt unhygienic practices. Those with higher health knowledge showed an even stronger positive effect from pressing versus tapping.

“The digital nudging effect is significant. In situations where you want people to be more careful with their behaviour, you probably should consider using force-based touch,” Dr Jiang said, who pointed out that a number of devices are designed around touch, such as Tesla’s new steering wheel and Apple’s force touch trackpad.

“At the same time, we do not want to overgeneralise the findings. These results happened when people were not deliberating over their decisions, which is often the case when people use their smartphones. But if they have to think carefully before a decision, then this effect is gone,” he said.

Dr Jiang and his colleagues are now looking at how to apply the findings in a fintech context.

The digital nudging effect is significant. In situations where you want people to be more careful with their behaviour, you probably should consider using force-based touch.