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Why we accept or reject new technologies

© Science Photo Library / GREGOIRE CIRADE

10. December 2020

From self-driving cars and flying taxis to artificial intelligence, an endless procession of new technologies is poised to completely transform our lives in the future. For innovations to prevail, however, it isn’t enough for them just to work: they also have to be of interest to the majority of people. For what reasons do we accept or reject technologies? What can we say today about the future acceptance of self-driving cars or flying taxis? It is these kinds of questions which exercise business psychologist Patrick Planing and his colleagues at the AcceptanceLab  of the Stuttgart University of Technology.

#explore: Mr Planing, what’s the ultimate aim of research into acceptance?

Patrick Planing: A lot of companies develop innovations without really understanding what their customers want. At the same time, however, technologies first have to be placed on the market at great expense before we can actually find out what people think about them. This applies, for example, to flying taxis or the Hyperloop, for which we’ve just conducted an acceptance study. In this concept, people are transported through tubes at high speeds. In the worst-case scenario, a system of tubes will end up being built across Europe for huge sums of money which, at the end of the day, nobody actually wants to use. From a societal perspective, it’s therefore crucial to understand as clearly as possible, even at an early stage of development, what people think about and expect from a new technology, so that their views can influence its development.

What brought you to acceptance research?

After completing my master’s degree in business administration, I started work at Daimler in 2007, where I conducted customer surveys. One of the things I found out was that the users I surveyed weren’t using the new assistance systems, even though they were frequent drivers who often spent days on end driving on motorways. I found it incredibly interesting that a car company should invest billions in the development of such systems without ensuring that their users would even recognise the added value those systems would bring. I wanted to know why, so I made it the subject of my doctorate. The question as to why people accept or reject new technologies has stayed with me ever since - because there are no simple answers. Functional and rational arguments play a part, as do emotional and affective responses, as well as social factors.

Which technologies are of particular interest in acceptance research?

All technologies that require people to change their learned behaviour – for example, if you’re being asked to switch from taking the train to using the Hyperloop or to give up your PC in favour of a smartphone, or to accept that your search query will be handled by a chatbot. These kinds of technologies meet with greater resistance. In the case of continuous further developments of an existing technology, such as system updates for mobile phones, acceptance barely registers as an issue.

How and under what conditions are people willing to change their habits?

This is, of course, the sixty-four-million-dollar question for acceptance researchers. The key factors are perceived simplicity of use – that is, how much of my behaviour I need to change to be able to use the new technology – perceived usefulness and the social aspects that come into play, all of which influence each another.

Until just a few years ago, a smartphone seemed to be surplus to requirements for many people. But as soon as we started to see that more and more people in our circles were getting a smartphone, we were also drawn into adopting the technology. Sociologically speaking, we’re guided here by the descriptive norm: that is to say, my perception of how most members of my group usually behave. If acquaintances and friends also then show us what we can do with this kind of device, the perceived benefit for us will increase very quickly – whereas the objective benefit will of course remain constant.

A lot of companies develop innovations without really understanding what their customers want.

Patrick Planing is co-founder of the AcceptanceLab

What methods do you use to determine the acceptance of technologies? 

We use a wide range of methods here. Particularly when it comes to completely new technologies, we approach the topic qualitatively through in-depth interviews. So, we conduct long interviews of over an hour with a few people to find out which rational, irrational and emotional factors play a role in the first place in the perception of a technology. Based on these findings, we create a questionnaire to quantitatively question a representative group of people.

In the case of established technologies, we also measure physical reactions on the part of our test subjects: heart rate or skin conductivity. We also use eye tracking to determine how attitudes change during the actual use of something. In a study on e-bike sharing, for example, we wired up our subjects and sent them out onto a defined test track.

You’ve also carried out a study on flying taxis. How do you go about determining the acceptance of a technology that isn’t yet on the market?

This is as big a challenge as it’s an exciting one for us researchers. The question, of course, is whether this can be done in a scientifically reputable way. The answer here is a clear “maybe”! (laughs). Simply asking people for their opinion in a telephone or online study doesn't help here. This is because the formation of attitudinal constructs takes time and experience – and, of course, the respondents haven’t yet had any experience of flying taxis. Our approach is to make this technology as tangible as possible for people. Virtual reality would be an option here. But, given the current state of the art, it’s just not the same as experiencing a real flight. And even if such a flight could be simulated realistically, the social factors wouldn’t get taken into account.

For this reason, we organised a flying day in Stuttgart with Volocopter flying taxis in September 2019. Visitors were able to sit in a flying taxi to find out what it felt like. Another taxi would then take off for an unmanned demonstration flight. Ideally, of course, they would have taken visitors passengers up with them, but this isn’t yet possible for legal reasons. Even so, on that day people had the opportunity to form a first opinion from their immediate experience, which we then asked them about.

You interviewed around 150 people both before and after the event. Were there any changes in attitude to air taxis?

The result surprised us all, because in fact their attitudes didn’t change at all. However, it’s too early to draw a definitive conclusion. On the one hand, it was a small sample, and on the other, there were only two to three hours between the interviews. Our attitudes take longer to change than that. In this respect, it would of course be very interesting to interview the same people again in a year’s time.  

What can be inferred from the results of this study for the future introduction of flying taxis?

Of course, even if we can’t yet determine exactly what level of acceptance there’ll be in the future, we can already work out what people expect or want from a technology. Our survey has shown, for example, that as well as rational reasons, such as the ability to cover long distances very quickly, hedonistic motives also have their part to play. People simply imagine how much fun it would be to hover over a city in a flying taxi. This will of course increase their willingness to use this kind of machine later on. Above all, however, it’s a question of how this kind of mobility option might be integrated into people’s everyday lives: would they want to use a Volocopter instead of a taxi for shorter distances or just take one on longer journeys for which they currently take the train? And how should flying taxis be integrated with buses and trains or car-sharing services? So, we’re interested in those very tangible things that will help providers make these technologies more user-centric.  

At the moment, there’s hardly any other technology that people are as reluctant to embrace as the electric car, even though electric vehicles are being prioritised by policymakers as the sustainable form of transport of tomorrow. How would you explain this?

As with all new technologies, the electric car is all about changing routines. And we’re always initially reluctant to accept things that require us to change our habits. This is particularly marked when one technology starts to replace another – and, in this case, the internal combustion engine is giving way to the electric car. Such technologies tend to have a harder time of it, as they’re also associated with fear of loss. This might be loss of the engine sound that some people love or the freedom to simply drive anywhere they want. Such affective reasons are often particularly weighty.

Most people, however, will mainly cite rational arguments that speak against a particular technology. This is precisely why in-depth interviews at the beginning of an acceptance study are so incredibly important. This is where the rational motives come to light as well as the irrational ones. And they also change over time and to the extent that the technology in question is establishing itself in our daily lives. Whether and when we opt for a technology is also a matter of self-image. Some people choose an electric car precisely because they want to make driving more sustainable.

So, there are often emotional reasons behind rational arguments?

This is quite natural and something we all do: I can cite a lot of rational reasons in support of why I absolutely have to have the new “MacBook Pro” – but it may be that I want first and foremost to impress my colleagues. 

What other technologies will be on your agenda in the future?

My personal focus is on mobility solutions such as Hyperloop or the flying taxi – the more radical they are, the more interesting I find them. I'm also looking at how the digital transformation is affecting our lives. In which areas are we going to be talking to digital assistants in the future and where will we continue to talk to people? Some of my colleagues at the AcceptanceLab are focusing on the acceptance of sustainable energy sources, which is also associated with major behavioural changes. If we can use our research to gain a better understanding of why people make conscious decisions not to adopt environmentally friendly tech, then this will help improve the marketing and communication of these technologies in the future.

About Patrick Planung

Patrick Planing is Professor of Business Psychology at the Stuttgart University of Technology and co-founder of the AcceptanceLab.