Talking with Clifford Nass is a real treat. He clearly loves what he does, and his passion for his work comes through in his stories and anecdotes. Not everyone gets to talk to Cliff Nass about his studies, but luckily he’s written a fabulous book, “The Man Who Lied To His Laptop”, that shares some of his best work and theories.
The basic idea behind many of the studies Nass and his team do is that people respond to perceived emotions and intentions, even if it’s presented by a (supposedly) neutral party like a computer or television. From there, Nass and the other researchers extrapolate lessons about how interactions with each other can be influenced and changed. The resulting stories and conclusions make “The Man Who Lied To His Laptop” a must-read for everyone!
The book is broken up into five chapters; Praise and Criticism, Personality, Teams and Team Building, Emotion, and Persuasion. Each area explains the different “experiments” the group did with volunteers, from watching how they respond to computer praise and criticism to driving tests and even television shows. From there, Nass lays out the results, then explains how they apply to everyday life. If you’re a “get to the point” type reader, there’s quick bullet point conclusions, but I strongly recommend reading the background stories as well. They’re entertaining as well as fascinating, and add a great deal of color to the end results.
Personally, I wish I had been able to read the chapter on Praise and Criticism back when I was a manager. My favorite part was when they ran an experiment on how people responded to “backseat drivers” during a simulated experiment. The results based on how participants responded to the style of computer critique led to the conclusion that by providing criticism with points for improvement, the feedback is received better. Nass even addresses how the “sympathetic” method of criticism where you offer praise, criticism, praise again fails to stick effectively, something I can tell you from experience is true. While praise/criticism stuck out to me because of my personal experiences, each of the examples in the chapters can be applied to life in various ways.
As I said before, I had the opportunity to talk with Dr. Nass about his research and book. One of the first questions I asked was whether there were any emotions or experiences they were unable to recreate and test with their experiments. Luckily he didn’t find that question creepy, and in fact understood exactly what I was asking. According to him, certain interpersonal relationships didn’t translate well into computer form, most notably love. Short of attempting to marry someone off to a computer, it is difficult to simulate that in a volunteer experiment.
I also asked him about his favorite experiments and stories from the book, and he cited a television experiment. Volunteers were shown televisions showing both news and sitcoms, and then “specialized” televisions that only showed news or only sitcoms. Perception is reality, and people believed the televisions showing only news or only sitcoms showed better news, funnier shows, and had better screens as well. Even more interesting, everyone was told up front that there was nothing technologically different about the televisions. It’s all about the labels, and a good lesson in how powerful those can be.
One of my other big questions was how they looked for things to study. Dr. Nass said they look for things that don’t make sense, like multitasking. For years psychology believed multitasking was not possible, yet people were doing it, so how do you reconcile that? Or, as Dr. Nass also put it, “The strange always excites social scientists.” Basically, they’re looking for something new and unexpected, in the hopes that it will lead to new insights about the human experience.
In fact, one of the big takeaways that Dr. Nass indicated he’s learned from his research is how he evaluates and works with students and teams. He’s embraced what his research has shown with respect to working with people. His research isn’t just done in a vacuum, and he’s used it to better his own work. Now you can do the same by reading his book, and learning more about being human, and how computers can bring out more of our humanity than you think!
“The Man Who Lied To His Laptop” is available for $17.99 in hardcover, $12.99 in Kindle edition from Amazon.com.
What I Liked: Very entertaining book; lots of great anecdotes and insights; bullet points make it easy to digest any key takeaways
What Needs Improvement: Nothing