Studying Computers To Learn About Ourselves

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Clifford Nass, a communications professor at Stanford University, has been studying the ways humans interact with computers to tease out some of the intricacies of how people relate to each other. He talks about those findings in his new book The Man Who Lied to His Laptop.

IRA FLATOW, host:

Next up, what kind of relationship do you have with your car's GPS? You know what I'm talking about. When you're driving down the road and that soothing voice says, In a hundred yards - that's not a soothing voice - in a hundred yards, turn right. Do you say thank you for that help? What if starts taking you the wrong way, right? You know, that long route instead of a direct one that you wanted? You know what I mean.

Do you ignore its directions or does your mood suddenly change when the GPS shouts, You missed the turn, watch carefully for the next intersection, turn right. Do you want to just yell at the GPS to shut up? Yeah. I do sometimes. If you're like me, you've probably yelled back at it, call it names or something even worse.

How can a computerized voice, not even a real person, get us so mad? We know -don't we know that's not a real person and that it's a machine? Do our brains deep down treat anything that talks, even a computer, as if it were human, even though we know very well it has no brain, it's a computer, it has no feelings?

Well, my next guest takes a stab at some of these questions and what they teach us about our own relationships with each other. In his new book, "The Man Who Lied to His Laptop" - do you lie to your laptop? Well, this man did. Clifford Nass is the author of "The Man Who Lied to His Laptop." He's a professor of communications at Stanford University, and he joins us from a studio on the campus. Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. Nass.

Dr. CLIFFORD NASS (Stanford University): Thank you. Delighted to be here, Ira.

FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow.

Do you yell at your computer?

Dr. NASS: I do. And I think everyone does. And even more importantly, we tend to establish really rich and long-lasting and complex relationships with our computers and any technology that talks or seems to even hint at the slightest bit of intelligence.

FLATOW: You know, what is it about our GPS in particular? I think we really take it out on it. And you've consulted with car companies on that. And I found interesting in you book, you start out in the front of your book talking about that German carmakers would not put a female voice into the GPS.

Dr. NASS: Well, even worse, BMW did in fact put a female voice in their GPS, and they actually had to have a product recall because German drivers would not take directions from a woman.

And what was particularly striking was, even after the helpdesk, when people were calling in angry, tried to explain that in fact it wasn't a real female in the car and in fact that all the people who had designed the GPS and the directions were male, nonetheless people were unfazed and insisted on changing the voice.

FLATOW: If you'd like to talk about your relationship with your computer - do you think it's human? Do you get angry at it? Our number: 1-800-989-8255. Also, you can tweet us @scifri, @S-C-I-F-R-I.

And Cliff, you also found in one of your studies that whether having a GPS that matches your mood has some effect on your driving, the mood of the GPS. In fact, I want to play two sound clips; one that is a happy car and one that is a sad car. Let's hear the happy car GPS first.

(Soundbite of a GPS car navigation system)

CHRIS: Hi. My name is Chris and I will be your virtual passenger for today. We are going to be driving on a coastal road, one that I have traveled many times before but one that may be new to you. The trip shouldn't take too long - 10 or 15 minutes. Let's get going.

FLATOW: All right. Now, if you had that happy car, maybe you had a happy GPS -but there was a car you had in your study that had a sad GPS.

(Soundbite of a GPS car navigation system)

CHRIS: Hi. My name is Chris and I will be your virtual passenger for today. We are going to be driving on a coastal road, one that I have traveled many times before but one that may be new to you. The trip shouldn't take too long - 10 or 15 minutes. Let's get going.

FLATOW: Wow. I wouldn't even want to listen to that voice. What...

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Did you find - what did you find about those two voices in your study?

Dr. NASS: Well, in fact, most people, when they hear that second voice, think, my goodness, I'd fire anyone who would ever use a voice like that. But, in fact, in our research it turned out that happy drivers drove much better with that first voice. But upset and angry drivers actually drove much better, felt much better, thought the voice was better when it was that second depressed, almost morose voice.

FLATOW: So a few...

Dr. NASS: And...

FLATOW: Yeah, go ahead.

Dr. NASS: And it turns out the basic finding is that happy people like happy people. But misery doesn't love company. Misery loves miserable company.

FLATOW: So if you had road rage or you had a bad day or something, you might want to hear that second voice instead.

Dr. NASS: Absolutely. Not only would you want to hear it, we'd have to worry about how should we make you feel less angry. And in fact in one study we did, we actually had the car, when someone's angry, say, you should calm down. You can probably guess, it made people even angrier, so the car became more insistent and people became angrier still, and eventually all the drivers got in very severe accidents.

FLATOW: Yeah, it's almost like, you know, you're on the plane for the two hours that you're sitting on the runway and somebody happily comes on and tells you the bad news.

Dr. NASS: Absolutely. It's a violation, not of a technology rule, but of a social rule and what the book is all about is these fundamental social rules and not only how technologies can teach us about what they are, but then how we can use that to improve how people interact with each other.

FLATOW: We'll get more into that when we - after the break when Cliff Nass, author of "The Man Who Lied to His Laptop," comes back. 1-800-989-8255 is our number. You can tweet us @scifri. Stay with us. We'll be right back. I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I am Ira Flatow.

We're talking with Clifford Nass, author of "The Man Who Lied to His Laptop." We're talking about people and their relationships with their computer becoming, they become very personal. And you - you talk about in your book that they, at some point they lose the difference between a person and a computer.

Dr. NASS: That's right, and that actually happens much sooner than we would guess. Almost immediately when someone works with the computer or other technology, they immediately start treating it with a whole range of social rules and expectations, and that's what we describe uncovering in the book and then describe how do apply that to people.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Couldn't we use that to our benefit? Could we not, you know, as we get to an older population, as people get more isolated, they don't move around as much, their friends die off as they get older, would it be good to get people to, you know, to accept their computer as their friends or as their partner or to alleviate the loneliness?

Dr. NASS: Well, on the one hand, there is a lot of evidence that interacting with technology, especially those that do the things that we would want a person to do, like learn your name over time, learn your preferences, become more like you, can make people feel better. There's a complicated ethical question whether that isn't just sort of throwing off a problem that's really a societal problem onto a technology. But there's no question that it's effective.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. 1-800-989-8255 is our number. One thing you talk about in the book is personality types. Can you talk about those? Should I change my personality type to match yours?

Dr. NASS: Well, it turns out that personality always seems unbelievably complicated. But in fact, they are really only two very simple dimensions of personality, whether you are outgoing or shy and whether you're generally friendly or unfriendly. And with that you can understand just about everything that goes on with other people. As far as matching, it turns out that the rule really is and should be birds of a feather flock together.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. NASS: And the only time that opposites really attract is when they come to be more similar to each other. So in fact, as much as possible, it is valuable when interacting with someone to become, to adopt their personality, their style of speech, the words they use, the intonation of language across the board, and we've been able to show with computers that all of these are very, very powerful and successful.

FLATOW: Andrew(ph) in Kansas City, Kansas. Hi. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

ANDREW (Caller): Hi, Ira. Thanks for having me on the show.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

ANDREW: Yes, I work for a major GPS company here in the United States, and I do technical support. And I speak to people every day who tell me stories about their relationship with their GPS. I find that a lot of people find women voices on their - especially they snotty. They feel like they're being talked to a lot, especially when they miss a turn. And on the other hand, there are a few voices, for example, the male Australian dialect that a lot of women I speak to think is very comforting. And they say that if they think that he's very handsome, even though he's not a real person.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Do people prefer foreign language dialect?

ANDREW: Yeah. Actually, myself, I actually prefer British males online. I just feel like he's a little bit more confident about where he's going.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. How do you get - what about the custom voices? Tweet is - one of our tweets coming in, like Homer Simpson, do you find that people want more of those?

ANDREW: Yeah, absolutely. People are always asking for those things. One thing, you know, obviously - I'm not going to talk about what company I work for, but one thing that we do offer is we offer the ability to put your own voice on your device, which is pretty interesting because I wonder how it would fare in studies if people were to listen to themselves and to see if they were really trusting themselves in this instance.

FLATOW: Thanks for calling.

ANDREW: Yeah, absolutely. Thank you very much, Ira.

FLATOW: (Unintelligible)

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. NASS: Well, we've actually studied that question, and the answer is people love themselves. We've done studies, for example, in which you work with that -you take a test on a computer and the feedback is either given not only by your own voice but your own face, saying you did a good job or you did a bad job or someone else has. And people not only thought they did better when they got feedback from their own voice, they thought their own face and voice was more intelligent, more likeable, and in fact they remembered more of the positive and fewer of the negative comments.

FLATOW: Let's go to Emmy(ph) in Reno. Hi, Emmy.

EMMY (Caller): Hi.

FLATOW: Hi there. Go ahead.

EMMY: Thanks for taking my call.

FLATOW: You're welcome.

EMMY: I want to just (unintelligible) my husband and I both have GPS's, and we use his quite a bit because (technical difficulties) long trips, and we always have it on. And we've nicknamed her. Her name is Susie Sunshine. And it's really kind of funny because he doesn't - he always plans his trips well in advance and knows where he's going, hardly ever has to ask for directions, doesn't really like to, but he'll take directions from Susie. So I sit in the car and make fun of him. Oh, you'll take directions from Susie, but you won't listen to me. And when she's wrong, it is so funny because they do if it's a new street in a city, like in Las Vegas there's a lot of new streets, she'll say turn the wrong way and I go, see, she was wrong. She was wrong again, and then it's just really, really quite funny.

FLATOW: Does he admit that you were right on that one?

EMMY: Oh, yeah.

FLATOW: Yeah. Okay.

EMMY: Oh yeah. He says, well, she's wrong but, you know, we're going to leave her on. And sometimes he'll turn her voice way down low and just - you know, she's always in the car.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: She's entertaining then.

EMMY: Yes, she is. She's very entertaining.

FLATOW: All right. Thanks for calling, Emmy. Good luck.

Dr. NASS: Okay, bye.

FLATOW: Good luck driving around Las Vegas.

Dr. NASS: Your strategy of criticism is actually a very good one in that people who criticize are seen as smarter. So your act of criticism will reinforce the idea that you had the right direction, although we don't like critics very much.

FLATOW: Well, you devote a really good section in your book about how to be an effective critic. You know, we all wonder, should you be the soothing voice, should you be - you know, what's the best way to give critical advice?

Dr. NASS: Well, I think the first and most important point is give a heck of a lot less of it. People give a great deal more criticism than praise. And as the research shows, even flattery is incredibly effective. In fact, it's probably the thing we underestimate the most, is just giving flattery, just saying nice things to people, whether they're true or not.

As far as criticism, the problem we have is - it's a funny thing about people. But once you start criticizing, it's easy to think of 10 more criticisms. But when you praise someone, it's very hard to think of 10 more praising statements. So another key is to stop - you know, say your piece and then stop, even though hundreds of other, quote, justifiably negative remarks are occurring.

The best way to approach criticism is to not do the traditional criticism sandwich, which is to be effusively positive, then slip in the negative and then a sort of passing positive remark, but instead to start with very, very concrete, specific positive things, then to state the negative point but always with something to do about it. People don't like criticism that is...

FLATOW: Just open-ended, like...

Dr. NASS: Exactly. Just like you blew it.

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. NASS: And then finally - I'm sorry. Start with a short, short positive remark, then go to the criticism, and then go to a very specific sequence of positive remarks. The reason is that our memory after criticism is much better than our memory before criticism. So if you give the big praise first and then the little, people will remember the little and forget the big. So it's much more important you start with the little and then end with the big crescendo, which will be much more memorable and will make people feel much better.

FLATOW: Well, but they - will they remember the criticism?

Dr. NASS: It turns out people ferociously remember criticism. In fact, in many studies if you ask people to recount the five best times of their life, they have great difficulty. But if you ask them to remember the five worst, they have amazing amounts of detail. It's a sad thing about people but negative events are infinitely better remembered than positive events.

FLATOW: And you also mention this when - in the call and in the book, that people think that you are a smarter person if you're critical.

Dr. NASS: That's right. We see this with movie critics. So movie critics who hate all movies are seen as the smart ones. And movie critics who like, you know, most movies are seen as dumb, even though it would seem pretty silly to go into the profession if you have to see most things you hate. But nonetheless, what applies to movie critics applies with others. So if you want to seem smart, it's very good to criticize. If you want to seem nice, it's better not to. And the best thing to do is to criticize a third party or make a scapegoat. We talk about how that made even the most hated character in software, Clippy the Microsoft Paperclip, popular by choosing a scapegoat.

FLATOW: But this is something politicians and some cable networks know very well now, don't they? To be popular, be critical and you'll seem like you're smart.

Dr. NASS: Absolutely. And it's one of the things that's really hurt politics, because the research also shows that those negative remarks drive(ph) - even though people remember and are fascinated by them, they don't enjoy seeing them. So it's sort of watching a car wreck. And in fact, the research has shown it does lower the amount of voting. It lowers voting rates. It lower trust in the political system. It's really a scorched earth when you attack other candidates.

FLATOW: Talking with Clifford Nass, author of "The Man Who Lied to His Laptop," and covering lots of interesting topics. What can we learn - I mean, do you learn these things and these techniques because you study how people interact with computers? Do they tell you these things?

Dr. NASS: Precisely. It turns out that psychology has really been handicapped. Because when you put two people together, so many weird things goes on. You know, the person reminds you of your best friend or they have a tattoo that bothers you or they can't really act the way we want them to in an experiment. But computers strip away all that annoying complexity and allow us to find the most fundamental human traits and characteristics, and the most successful rules, rules that are so powerful that even a computer can be better-liked, more charming, more trusted, more intelligent - and in fact, one of the titles we thought about for the book was, if a computer can be popular, so can you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Though some of our politicians have been pretty wooden compared to machines(ph)...

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Well, speaking of which, let's say that somebody, a politician, is trying to reconnect with the American people and he wants to use some of your techniques. Say, the president. What are some of the tactics that you would suggest?

Dr. NASS: Okay. So one of the interesting issues is to persuade people there's really only two things you need for persuasion - and sometimes they have to traded off - and those are expertise, the sense that this guy really - or a female - knows what he's talking or she is talking about.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. NASS: And the second is trustworthiness, that they really care. And very often what we see is an analysis of these presidential debates, or rather, you know, gubernatorial races, is that a candidate falling too much on one side, too expertise-like and not enough friendly, not enough showing caring or vice versa - so modulating that, also modulating that with the issue. With issues that are less emotional, it's more important to appeal to an expertise approach.

And we can show this through everything from the words we use to our body posture, to our head position, how much we smile, to the words we use, and all of these come together to create an image. One of the problems is, when they don't match, so often the worse moments of the campaign for a candidate is when they're smiling while talking about bad news.

FLATOW: Or the Michael...

Dr. NASS: And that gets the...

FLATOW: Or the Michael Dukakis moment in that tank, where he - yeah.

Dr. NASS: Absolutely. Or the Muskie moment when he was crying.

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. NASS: These are the moments in which you're not supposed to display emotion properly.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Talking to Clifford Nass, author of "The Man Who Lied to His Laptop" on SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow.

Let's go to the phones. Corey(ph) in Salem, Oregon. Hi, Corey.

COREY (Caller): Hi there.

FLATOW: Hi.

COREY: Thanks for having me on.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Go ahead.

COREY: So I'm an artist, and I've been interested for a long time in how people interact with machines in general. And I'd - I've made a number of sculptures that're, you know, really very simple little things that don't have a lot going on mentally. And I try to find the cues that, you know, get people to start treating them like little animals instead of just, you know, a dumb robot on a wire.

And I've been really astounded at how little it takes, you know? Just a reaction to a certain movement or the fact that it's interacting with you a few times in a row...

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

COREY: ...will get people to get protective of these little robots or will get them to start talking to them like they're little babies or, you know, want to cuddle them. And I think you see that a lot in toys, too, but it's just really fascinating. I mean, I've had people come to the defense of these robots in the gallery situation because someone else was pestering it too much. And it's like, it's just a machine. Of course, it doesn't really hurt it at all. But, you know, they just get so attached to the idea that because they're interacting with it, it's something they have to take care of.

FLATOW: Interesting. Cliff?

Dr. NASS: I think that's a superb insight. Just as the simplest cue of a face, the same as smiley face, right? Two dots and a line. If we saw a round circle that's yellow, if we saw a person that looked like that, we would be absolutely traumatized. But it's enough to do it.

Or Herbie, the Love Bug. Those movies where, you know, here's a car that couldn't talk. Even though people often remember the car as talking, it could literally only lift its hood and honk. But that was enough.

Just the same way, the reason we get all these strong social responses is our brains are obsessed with being social. And given the slightest opportunity to do so, we will do so. And that's why it's so powerful to use computers and other technologies to reveal what's fundamentally social.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And I remember the famous case a few years ago in Second Life where the - there was the case of the avatar, where a woman filed for a divorce because she found her husband cheating on her with an avatar?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. NASS: Absolutely. And these are real feelings that are not, quote, "simulations" of real feelings. They are, in fact, very powerful, real feelings, just as we can be saddened by a technology or depressed or feel very comforted by, exhibit stereotypes towards, so we talked about the gender stereotypes, et cetera. All these things happen because our brains don't have an on/off switch for: It's a machine, it's a person.

COWARD: But isn't this something dangerous? I mean, if we can't distinguish, we lose that ability or don't want to have that ability.

Dr. NASS: Absolutely. I mean, you know, we've done research showing that a compassionate technology that gets to know you and, you know, becomes more like you, et cetera, is a marvelous teacher. It's s also a marvelous persuader of products good and ill.

So any of the these technologies that encourage liking or persuasion or feeling like part of a team...

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. NASS: ...can be used for positive and negative purposes, but that's true with social life in general. You know, the same rules that the most kind and loving and suave people use, are the rules that con men use.

FLATOW: Hmm. And that's a good place to (unintelligible)..

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. NASS: A depressing place perhaps.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Well, everybody...

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: This is a holiday week, and everybody's, uh, using their GPS. Any quick advice using your GPS on this driving weekend, coming up here? Be nice to it or it be nice to you?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. NASS: Just make sure you concentrate on the road. We don't want people multitasking. And talking to a GPS is almost as bad as talking on a cell phone.

FLATOW: All right. There you have it. That's our hint of the weekend. Thank you, Cliff, for taking time to be with us today.

Dr. NASS: My pleasure. Thank you.

FLATOW: Have a - and you have a happy and safe weekend talking to your GPS. Clifford Nass...

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: ...is author of - you are "The Man Who Lied to His Laptop," a delightful book. I highly recommend it to you. He's also professor of communication at Stanford University in California.

That's all the time we have for today.

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