- Centre for Decision Research
More than half of households using the internet in the UK own a voice assistant device, such as Amazon’s Alexa, as do 49% of US households. With requests ranging from “what’s the weather like today?” to “what’s the biggest selling record of all time?”, people are turning to voice assistants to get information.
These questions can also include health-based queries. In 2019, the NHS partnered with Alexa to provide health information through a digital device that draws science-based information from the NHS website. People can now ask their voice assistant for health advice, such as “what are the symptoms of flu?” or “how do I treat a migraine?”, rather than getting it the “old-fashioned” way by reading it on the NHS website.
Spoken or written?
In psychology, broadly speaking, it is assumed that the format of the language (written or spoken) shouldn’t influence people’s judgements and decisions. My colleagues (Professors Janet Geipel, Lucia Savadori and Boaz Keysar) and I challenged this assumption by conducting studies to find out whether receiving information via voice or written text influences people’s risk perception and their emotional response.
In our study, we randomly assigned participants to either spoken or written information about five novel technologies. We chose novel technologies (such as vaccine strips and nanotechnology in food packaging) as people are less likely to have ingrained opinions about them.
Weighing up the risks
The participants all received descriptions of the five technologies including the advantages and disadvantages of each. Following each description, participants were asked how risky and how beneficial they believed the technology to be. We found that participants who had heard about a new technology rather than reading about it were more likely to perceive that the benefits outweighed the risks.
The results showed that not only did the format of the language alter the risk perception, but it influenced it in a certain direction. We conducted a second study to investigate this further, exploring whether a spoken format provoked more positive feelings from participants. We added measures to the study to find out how much participants liked or disliked the technology, how good or bad they found it, and how favourable or unfavourable their opinion was about it.
We found that those that had heard about the novel technologies had more positive feelings about them, compared to those that read about the technologies, and that these feelings increased the gap between perceived benefit and risk.
For the third experiment, we replicated the focus of experiments one and two (risk and benefit assessment, and emotional response) but this time, we examined familiar technologies (e.g. nuclear energy and pesticides) as well as novel ones.
The results showed that, unlike with the novel technologies, spoken and written information about familiar technologies prompted the same perceptions of risk and benefit and elicited the same emotional response. This shows that the format of the language influences the perception of novel technologies, but not familiar ones.
The choice of whether information is provided via voice or text is often a matter of convenience. However, we have demonstrated that the format can influence how the information is perceived. This is important to bear in mind when designing surveys and opinion polls about novel issues – something that is particularly important in academia, politics, and commerce.
Our findings suggest that learning about novel technologies by voice as compared to text can prompt a more positive overall perception toward them, which could influence the public’s willingness to adopt them. Returning to the opening example, patients who receive information about a new medication via their voice assistant system would likely view the medication more favourably than if they’d read about it online.
Read the journal article – “Language modality influences risk perception: Innovations read well but sound even better”, Risk Analysis: An international journal. https://doi.org/10.1111/risa.13917
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