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Learning from Clippy: an interview with Clifford Nass

By Pete Chapman on 24 Sep 2010

As a follow-up to our review of Clifford Nass’ book, The Man Who Lied to his Laptop, we were offered a chance last Friday (Sept. 17) to interview Professor Nass via telephone. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

RGB Filter-I must confess that I’m daunted by this interview because your book has got me thinking… “Should I sequence my criticism following your suggestions in The Man Who Lied to His Laptop? Should I play the personality type “Critic” or “Side Kick” in my presentation? Should I alternate in old fashioned police interrogation style as Good Cop- Bad Cop? Or should I be more consistent with my character?” So, I pass it back to you…What is a good way to approach this?

Clifford Nass- You’ve obviously grasped a lot of the issues in the book. The decision of how you approach interacting with other people is to a large extent the goals that you want to achieve. So if, for example, you want your audience to think that you’re very smart and not worry all that much about liking you then you can adopt a more critical style because people who are seen as critical of others are seen as more intelligent but less likeable than people who are nice to others. Of course, if you want your audience to like you and are willing to sacrifice a little bit of seeming intelligent, you could be more friendly. You seem to be on the extroverted side so that seems to be the style most natural for you…as it happens, I am as well so we have the benefits of matching each other.

RGB Filter- I’m reminded of your section in the book called “Enough About Me. Let’s Talk About You? What Do You Think About Me?”

Laughter from both parties here.

RGB Filter- (recovering from laugh) I stopped after reading that section because I was reminded of a very funny passage in Martin Amis’ novel “Money” where a clever scriptwriter (named Martin Amis) clears up the mounting problems that a production is having with its cast by inserting scenes into the script where each cast members’ character has a speech where he talks favourably about another cast members’ character. The actors hear these speeches during rehearsal and suddenly, all of the backbiting and complaining goes away.

Clifford Nass- Interesting!… He is a very acerbic and funny writer.

RGB Filter- I’m taking what you say in the book to heart. Let’s get to the tough questions first

Clifford Nass- Okay.

RGB Filter- Clippy, the Microsoft Office Assistant. You knew him. You worked with him. In the end, did he deserve his fate and what did you learn about man-machine relationships from that project?

Clifford Nass- When we looked at him, we found what he did somehow angered and infuriated people with a vehemence that is usually reserved for people like Stalin or someone like that, even though he’s a little pictorial image on the screen that didn’t even make sounds…. In trying to understand why that is the case, it became apparent he violated every every social role you could imagine. He would interrupt you. He would say, “Oh, I see that you are writing a letter”. Which was fine the first time and okay the second but the twentieth time, after you indicated that you didn’t need help with letter writing, he would still pop up again. It was like someone locked up in your office pestering you.

RGB Filter-Micro-managing…

Clifford Nass- Right. It was clear that he wasn’t really interested in you at all. If I met you twenty times and treated you like as if I just met you, you’d be absolutely infuriated.

RGB Filter-The guy’s not learning. He’s not picking up on what I’m saying. He’s not taking the hint.

Clifford Nass- Yes! Or even more basically, “He doesn’t care about me…He’s not interested in me”. And just as you talked about earlier, not being interested in someone is a great insult, just as being interested in someone is one of the nicest things you can do.

RGB Filter- This might be a bit glib, but would you say that he was hard to place on the “Critic” to “Sidekick” axis. He’s an assistant, a traditional Sidekick role but he was blatantly a Critic in his style. He’s giving this mixed message. Would that be part of it?

Clifford Nass- I think that’s absolutely part of it and one of the things we talk about, based on research, is that consistency is enormously important and behaving consistently with your role is hugely important. When he’s supposed to be on the sidelines he keeps thrusting himself at you and constantly drawing attention to himself.

RGB Filter- Hmm…yeah…Sorry… I’m just thinking of some people in my life.

(Laughter from both parties here.)

Clifford Nass- That’s exactly right. You should be thinking about how these people…or yourself… do these things, either consciously or unconsciously or just not being aware of their negative social effects and in your own case, how can you control them to be a more successful, social person. That’s really the theme of the book; to highlight the mistakes we make, sometimes with the best of intentions.

RGB Filter-The fact that humans read human qualities into computers isn’t that surprising but the idea that computers can stand in for people in sociologically and psychologically oriented studies would be a leap for some. You’re associated and credited with the paradigm,”Computer as Social Actor”. Could you tell us something about that?

Clifford Nass- Sure…I’ve been studying how people use computers for a long time and in some cases it was clear that people were treating computers as machines…and that was fine…but in more and more cases I would find people doing odd things. Perhaps the best known is an experiment we did on “politeness”. If I asked you, “How do you like my new shirt?”, presumably you would say nicer things to me than if someone across the room asked, “How do you like Cliff’s new shirt? And that is because we are polite. When people ask questions about themselves we are more positive than when an objective party asks. Well, we discovered that the same thing is true of computers. If people work with a computer and then have that computer or a computer across the room ask , “How well did that computer do? How helpful was it? Etc.”…People will say nicer things to the computer that asked about itself…just as if it was a person.

RGB Filter- And this was true even when the subjects were computer science students? People who know that the computer is a bunch of wires and circuit boards…

Clifford Nass- These were graduate students in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at Stanford. Experts. And we now have over 125 studies that show that even the most knowledgeable computer users respond to computers as if they were people and these range across an enormous variety of areas of social life from praise and criticism, to emotion, to persuasion, to team building…in just about every aspect of life people treat computers with the same social roles and expectations as if they were real persons, even if they know better.

RGB Filter-A lot of people find themselves doing work that they never would have imagined if you’d asked them what they were going to do with their university degree. Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think that you realized at age six that becoming a fireman (or marine archaeologist or costumed crime fighter or astronaut) wasn’t in the cards and this man-machine relationship thing looked promising? How did you get into this?

Clifford Nass- It was actually thrust upon me. As an undergraduate, I focused on math and physics and worked as a computer scientist. I thought I was to go on to my PhD in Computer Science and after my undergraduate, I went to work for Intel on data structures and algorithms. There was a death in my family and I had to go back East. So I had to leave California to look after my family. I knew I wouldn’t be able to go to grad school in Computer Science right away but my last semester in Princeton as an undergraduate I needed the easiest course I could find because I was working on a very complex Computer Science thesis and I found a course in Sociology that had no required readings and only needed one final paper at the end. I thought, “This is perfect. I can basically ignore the class and focus on my thesis.” Despite myself, I found myself loving the material.

RGB Filter-One thing that I appreciated in the book was the range of social and psychological theorists that you drew from. In the review, I wanted to say that you referenced everything from Durkheim to Dawkins. Unfortunately people might read that alphabetically and ignore the depth and chronology.

Clifford Nass- You understand this differently after you’ve seen it in the context of a stripped down experiment. You read Durkheim differently after you understand how profound and fundamental these things are. One of Durkheim’s great masterworks is a sociological study of suicide. What could be more personal than suicide? You can see where he’s coming from and the same with Dawkins. You understand this better when you understand how, in some sense, simple humans are. And this what the great thinkers do. They don’t get distracted. They have a belief that if you know the most fundamental things you can get very powerful results.

RGB Filter-Professor Nass, thanks for taking the time for this interview and thanks for writing The Man Who Lied to His Laptop. I’m looking forward to your next book.

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