YOU HEAR IT EVERYWHERE: Your future success depends on your ability to function in a technological society. But when faced with new technology, your heart rate quickens, your pulse races, and you're afraid you're going to push the wrong button. The good news is, you're not alone. With almost half of all U.S. adults and many others around the world saying the advance of technology is leaving them behind, technophobia is finally taking its place as a key issue among educators, employers, and businesspeople. But there is a way to beat it.
Drs. Michelle M. Weil and Larry D. Rosen are psychologists from California who specialize in the psychology of using technology, and they are providing assistance for technophobics. Dr. Weil, president of Byte Back, is a clinical psychologist and an expert on people's psychological reactions to technology. In 1985, she developed the national model Technophobia Reduction Clinic for the U.S. Department of Education and has been studying and treating technological discomfort for the past 10 years.
Dr. Rosen, vice president of Byte Back, is professor of psychology at California State University, Dominguez Hills. With 12,000 business executives, university students, schoolteachers, clerical workers, and schoolchildren in 23 countries as subjects, he has completed more than 25 research studies on the psychological impact of technology. In addition, he has authored more than two dozen articles in professional journals.
OnTheInternet spoke recently with Drs. Weil and Rosen to determine exactly what technophobia is; how it transcends age, gender, and cultural barriers; and what can be done to overcome it.
OTI: During the past five years or so, technology - from computers to VCRs to voice mail - has become a more integral part of our lives and our work. Given that most of us feel a little nervous about sitting down to master a new technology, how would you define technophobia? How does it differ - if at all - from other phobias?
MW: I really don't like to think of technophobia as another phobia - like claustrophobia or agoraphobia - because of the connotation that it is an illness that therefore needs treatment. We struggled for a long time with the words to use to describe what we were finding. When we first started looking at people's reactions to computers, we called it computerphobia. We then moved into the era when technology became so available for the consumer, and we realized that what we were calling computerphobia consisted of more than just a reaction to computers: it was a reaction to one or more - perhaps many - forms of technology, so we changed the word to technophobia. Some research has been done that describes it as cyberphobia, so I think we have to remember that any term we use will be imperfect. But the idea behind the term is to describe any kind of mild to moderate to severe discomfort with one or more forms of technology, in which case those experiencing the technophobia would, if at all possible, like to avoid technology. If they can't avoid technology, they have several different experiences. They believe the technology is not for them, and they don't believe they'll be able to understand it. For some, technology is downright intimidating.
There are a couple of types of technophobics that we have identified. One is called the cognitive technophobe. Cognitive technophobes are usually playing out a very intense, negative dialogue inside their head, saying things like, "if I push the wrong button, the machine will break," or "I'm going to get an electric shock," or "I'm stupid, and everybody knows this but me." So they're really hassling and frightening themselves internally when they have to use technology or when they even imagine themselves using technology.
The other form of technophobia is the one we call the anxious technophobe. Anxious technophobes experience more of the traditional anxiety symptoms. Their heart rate might pick up, they might get sweaty palms, they might get a headache or a nauseated stomach when either they have to deal with any technology that makes them uncomfortable or they imagine themselves dealing with technology. So although one might fall into these categories, these phobias are not like any of the other diagnostic phobias.
OTI: Is one form of technophobia more common than the other?
LR: I think the cognitive technophobe is definitely more common. From some of our earlier research it was actually harder to find anxious technophobes than it was to find cognitive technophobes, although we never really counted how many there were of each. Cognitive technophobes seem not only more common but also more difficult to recognize because from the outside they look like they're not having much of a problem. On the inside, however, they're throwing these negative messages around like, "I'm going to push the wrong button." "I can never figure this out.," "Everybody else knows what they're doing." "I have no clue."
MW: In general, technophobes don't let on, because one of the universal aspects of technophobia is that you feel as if you're the only one feeling this way and so you don't let on because you think you'll appear foolish, or that you'll embarrass yourself, or that people will think less of you. Everyone out there imagines that the rest of the world is technosavvy; luckily, we have the research base to show that such is not the case. It's actually only 10-15 percent who are very technologically sophisticated; the vast majority of the population is either somewhat comfortable with some forms of technology or not comfortable with any forms of technology.
OTI: At this time there seems to be such phenomenal change and improvement in technology. As a result, are you seeing more technophobia? Are people coming forward now to say that they don't get it? Are they thinking that everyone else out there seems to be zipping by on the information superhighway and they're not?
LR: No, I don't think we're seeing more people coming out and saying, "I'm technophobic." I think what we're seeing is that technophobes are finding more to be concerned about. They're saying, Hey, wait a minute. I can't even buy a coffeemaker now that doesn't have a computer. I'd like something simple.
MW: Yes, that group of people is growing. I'm hoping that in the next three to five years, the idea behind technophobia and technological stress will have become common enough through the media that people will feel comfortable saying they're not comfortable and that they can more assertively take care of themselves and get the assistance that they need. But I think for now they're still underground.
LR: It's interesting, because we have a variety of ways of assessing who's a technophobe and we've always used these nice, wonderful measures with cutoff scores that showed us who was technophobic. On a lot of our surveys now we simply ask people, and we get about the same results as we got before.
OTI: Most of us know someone - or several people - who are not in the least intimidated by technology; they seem to take to any new gadget like a fish to water. What characteristics or psychological differences are there between technophiles and technophobes?
MW: Let me give you the breakdown of they way we look at the population as a whole. We see that 10-15 percent of the population are what we are calling eager adopters. These are what I think you are calling technophiles. They really embrace technology, and for them, technology is fun. They enjoy going out and purchasing the newest and latest gadgets with all of the bells and whistles. They're the ones who are actively using technology, talking about it with their friends, and singing its praises. Eager adopters feel enhanced by using technology. They expect that technology will have problems, and so when a problem occurs, it doesn't bother them. They look at it only as a challenge to overcome. They know that answers are available, and they know how to go and get those answers.
The next group contains what we are calling the hesitant prove-its. This group encompasses 50-60 percent of the population. The prove-its are a group for whom technology is OK in general but who are hesitant to use it themselves unless they can have it proven. They ask, "What will it do for me?" They also want all of the bugs worked out, because they don't like to encounter problems. They tend to personalize a problem, believing it has something to do with them rather than believe it is inherent in the technology. But they have to have somebody develop a personal motivation for why they need it before they're going to want to use it or want to go out and buy it. It has to be personalized.
The last group are the resisters. The resisters encompass about 30-40 percent of the population. They are the people who don't want anything to do with technology. They believe it's definitely not for them.
LR: It's no fun at all for them.
MW: No, it's no fun at all, and whenever the technology develops a problem, the resister will absolutely personalize it. Resisters feel that it was they who made the mistake and that the technology is revealing their buffoonery. In other words, for resisters, the whole experience of learning or of interacting with technology is very grueling, because they personalize the experience; they're feeling negative, and they also don't believe that the answers are available because they see it as their own personal ineptitude. So, for the resistant group, technology is something they would like to have go by the wayside.
OTI: There is an old cartoon, called What Dogs Hear, in which a man is reprimanding his dog by saying, "Don't sit on the couch." "Don't chew my shoes." "Don't go on the rug." "Don't bark." And the cloud over the dog's head reads, "Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah." Given that the technology is written about and explained to us in a language we know, why do we find it so hard to understand? Is there really such a thing as a mental block?
LR: Actually, it's a clear statement that says, "I cannot take this information in. This information makes me uncomfortable and I'm going to have my eyes glaze over. I'm not going to hear you. I'm not going to listen to you." We see this happening often even in beautifully developed training programs, that somewhere in the first 15-20 minutes, 30-40 percent of the group has stopped listening.
MW: I think there's more to it than that - and so I would disagree with my esteemed colleague. I really believe that there is a language all its own that goes with technology and that the vast majority of the population doesn't understand the language. And I think that it really separates what I tend to call the "knows" and the "know-nots." There are those who know the language and know the technology and then there are the know-nots: those who don't know the language. The whole field of technology developed a vocabulary, which itself is very difficult to understand. I like to use a couple of analogies: We have a term such as dishwasher. Well, what does a dishwasher do? It's pretty obvious: It washes dishes. What does a refrigerator do? It refrigerates. You can get the sense of what that does for you.
What does your personal computer do? It computes? Well, what do I need to compute? So technology itself has come along using very user unfriendly terms - terms that overwhelm John Q. Public into saying, "What does that really mean?" When you start feeling like you don't understand, then there's going to be more of a tendency to shut down and not take in the information.
OTI: Isn't it natural to be a little bit fearful of pressing the wrong button?
MW: Yes, inherent in learning anything new is a fear of the unknown, and so I think everyone has a little hesitancy about pushing the wrong button or not being able to plug the equipment in correctly. I think it's important that people understand it's a normal part of the process, and I think that that concept should somehow be built into the introduction so that rather than feeling there's something wrong with you, you think it's normal and you are encouraged to go ahead and see what happens. You are encouraged to explore and experiment. I think that that really helps.
OTI: If the language of technology is what people are finding intimidating-and I do agree that there is a separate language and in many ways it's almost an elite language-do you encourage people to learn the language as a means of helping them to assuage their fears?
LR: Part of the model we have for introducing technology is that when you learn technology, you try to learn from someone who is very comfortable with technology and who can explain things without the jargon. You want someone to explain by going around the terms so that you don't have to use terms like RAM and ROM and bytes and bits. The jargon isn't necessary. Technology is jargon laden, I think, because it's a technical area, but you don't need to learn the technical terms in order to learn to use the computer. In fact, you don't really need to know anything except how to turn it on and how to follow the instructions that a comfortable person can give you.
MW: I think, as Dr. Rosen is saying, a really good trainer decodes the language. Once you're comfortable with something, then you pick up the lingo just as a part of the learning. But the language needs to be decoded at first.
LR: This is something I've learned from Dr. Weil. I'm the kind of person who throws jargon around, but she always stops me and says, "What does that really mean? Tell me in real terms." This is good for me. It's good practice.
OTI: In your research, have you uncovered any specific characteristics you would attribute to the typical technophobe, such as age or education level or gender?
LR: Overall, given that technophobes make up anywhere from 30 to 50 percent of the population worldwide, the answer is really no. There are research studies that show that age is related for some types of technology. We've done some research on schoolteachers that shows that age is very important in terms of which schoolteachers are technophobic.
OTI: Why would that be?
LR: Our guess is that a lot of the teachers who are technophobic have been around for a long time and were grandfathered in on any of the rules and standards about becoming computer literate. They are intimidated by technology. They didn't have computers in high school or college, and now all of a sudden they have a computer dumped in their room and they're told, Set up your computer and use it with your students. And yet, they don't have much - or in some cases, any - training. And certainly without any attention to their reaction.
MW: There's really a couple of things I think are important because it isn't just older people who are technophobic. There are young people who are technophobic. There are kids who are technophobic. Certainly exposure to technology does play a role in who is technophobic and who is not. If you've never been exposed to technology, you're going to tend to have a what-on-earth-is-this type of reaction. But just because you've been exposed to technology doesn't mean you're not going to be technophobic.
We did an etiology study to see what could predict technophobia. The work was fascinating because one of the highest predictors of who became technophobic has to do with the attitude of the introducer of technology for that person. In other words, technology introducers who are uncomfortable with the technology - even though they are teaching something they understand -might transfer to the learners that technology is uncomfortable.
LR: A lot of children these days are being introduced to technology - particularly computers -by their teachers.
OTI: It is my understanding that part of the problem in schools at this time, which probably will pass as a new generation takes over, is that the kids seem to be more savvy with computers than the teachers are. The teachers, therefore, feel somewhat intimidated by the students, which means the students aren't really learning anything about computers from the teachers. Is that your experience in what you've studied about educators?
LR: People refer to the upcoming generation of children as the Nintendo generation, and that term - I always wondered where it came from - I think is very appropriate. The kids are being raised on Nintendo and video games, and based on the amount of time they spend playing games, they look tremendously comfortable with technology. In fact, we've done some research on both teenagers and children, and if you look at those kids and what they're using - even though they are using computerized games and toys - they're not using computers. In fact, they're using computers at about the same level as adults, rather than using them much more.
Another question to ask is, what kinds of characteristics predict who will use technology? For adults, technophobia predicts who will use technology. For kids, socioeconomic status is the best predictor of who will use technology. So what we're creating is a group of kids who use it a lot and who tend to become prominent looking (the ones in the class who are playing with the computer before and after school) and also a big group of kids who are not using technology. The haves and have-nots are becoming the knows and the know-nots. The most recent census figures show twice as many white families own computers than black or Hispanic families. When we asked kids if they had ever used a personal computer, a very small number of white and Asian students said they had never used a personal computer, but three times as many black and Hispanic students admitted never having used computers.
MW: That's the thing to be cautious about when we globalize or generalize statements. Yes, there are certain subsets of the population in which the kids know more than the teachers about computers. But there's a chunk of the population in which neither the teachers nor the kids know anything - nor do they have access to anything.
OTI: When kids are introduced to technology through Nintendo or any of the other computer games, is this making them more comfortable with technology, or is it giving them only the illusion of being comfortable with technology? Will it translate into an ability to function in the technological society, or is it irrelevant?
MW: It may be helping kids become more comfortable, because they're being exposed to a form of technology. But the transfer of knowledge is not 100 percent linear. A kid can't say, "Because I know how to play Nintendo, I therefore can comfortably operate a personal computer."
OTI: I think we all have this idea that children take to everything so naturally. But without the exposure to computers, is that automatically true?
MW: It's not exposure alone. It's exposure plus being exposed to the technology by someone who is confident, who is a good teacher, and who values the technology. And that's where we're saying, technology's here to stay. We really believe in technology and its usefulness, but we also believe in keeping a balance. Not all technology is for everybody, nor do we need all of the technology that's available. Nonetheless, one of the most important components in becoming technologically confident is not to be introduced to it just by someone who values it but by someone who can explain it in down-to-earth and personalized fashion. You have to show new users what the technology can do for them that would be immediate and helpful in order to build motivation. That's what gets somebody excited.
OTI: After your studies of attitudes toward technology in various parts of the world, what can you tell us about the ways different cultures and countries approach new technology? Are there specific countries and cultures that embrace technology more easily than others? What would account for the differences?
LR: We did a research project a few years ago in which we studied more than 3,500 freshman university students in 23 different countries, and we got a good sense from groupings of countries of where they stood. There was a grouping of countries - for example, Singapore and Israel - where the university students were very nontechnophobic; when you examine those countries, even though they are very different, you'll find some common characteristics. First, those governments really value technology. They place a value on it, and that value is not only a spoken value but a financial value as well. They support technology, particularly technology in the educational system at the earliest level.
And it is introduced by confident, and, most important, well-trained teachers. You get to see, for example, in Singapore, that students were very comfortable with computers and technology and that they use all sorts of technology. Same for Israel.
In the United States, we had a situation in which about a third of our university students were technophobic in this study. The problem here is a governmental system that does not particularly value technology and-
MW: - or maybe we should say value it comprehensively.
LR: OK, comprehensively. And it certainly has very little financial support for technology. Then when you look at where the technology is introduced, yes, we do have a very good ratio of students to computers in the elementary and secondary school systems, but we have very few teachers who are comfortably trained to teach computers.
OTI: Are there countries in your research that were unwelcoming toward technology?
LR: I'm not so sure I would say unwelcoming. I would say there were some differences around the world. Japan was an interesting country. We were very surprised to find that 60 percent of the Japanese university students tested as technophobic - until we looked into issues concerning the infusion of technology at the earliest levels.
The Japanese government made a government decision that there were not going to be computers at the primary level. Japan's secondary schools have lots of computers, and that is when students are introduced to computers. At the primary level, computers are not used at all. In fact, the teachers are not trained to use them. Apparently, using computers at the primary level goes against Japanese cultural values about the ways education is distributed. Much of Japanese education is fostered by group education in which students learn together all at the same pace, helping each other out. In many situations, the entire class will state the answer to a question rather than individual students raising their hands and giving the answer, and a computer in a classroom would disrupt that process because a computer fosters more independent learning rather than group learning.
It's interesting, because the Japanese government has recently recognized and admitted that it may have made a mistake. So the Ministry of Education is now putting something like $3 billion into the system with the promise that by the year 2000 there will be 22 personal computers in every primary school. It would be interesting to do our research in 10 years and look at those primary school students coming up through Japan's school system. Our guess is, with that kind of government support and value and infusion at the elementary level, that there will be a big change in the number of technophobic students.
OTI: What have your studies revealed about people's attitudes toward the Internet? Do attitudes toward electronic communications differ from attitudes toward other technologies? If so, how?
LR: I can tell you about a study we just did, which was not directly about the Internet but did touch on it. We did a longitudinal study in Los Angeles of attitudes toward what we labeled the Information Superhighway, which is sort of the Internet plus. During a period of six months, we administered questionnaires to adults and looked at what they'd heard about the Information Superhighway and what specific services interested them. The results were fascinating. First of all, we were surprised that very little changed over the six months, even with the infusion of all the media.
When we asked how much the adults had heard about the Information Superhighway, only 27 percent said they'd heard quite a bit; a quarter said they'd heard nothing, which actually matched some other polls that have shown that at least a quarter of the population has heard nothing about it. When we asked what kinds of services interested them, in general most of them were not interested in what the Information Superhighway has to offer. The services adults really want tend more to be financial services and some entertainment services, but not a lot of them.
OTI: What about educational and research opportunities?
LR: We asked about a series of 15 different potential services, and educational services came in very low - a little less than half were interested in searching an encyclopedia, for example. Forty-two percent were interested in taking a college class through the Information Superhighway. Fewer were interested in reading library books at home. You get a sense that education wasn't that important. It's interesting that the most important service of the ones we listed was paying bills.
MW: Last December MCI came out with a research study based on the attitudes of executives toward technology. Of the executives polled, 58 percent had not heard anything about the Internet. Only 10 percent were aware of or knew how to access the Internet. One-third of the Internet knowledgeable thought the Internet was unwieldy, and 22 percent believed the Internet was overrated.
In a recent Newsweek poll - a John Q. Public survey -13 percent had been online, 10 percent knew how to access the Internet, 4 percent had perused the World Wide Web, and 2 percent had logged on for an hour or more a day. The numbers are pretty small.
OTI: It is true that consumer interest in the Internet has been extremely hesitant, much to the disappointment of the content providers.
MW: That is in part, I really believe, because it is difficult to understand what the Internet is until somebody demonstrates it to you. Technology allows some phenomenal abilities right now, but those abilities can't be described in words because we don't have the ability in our mind to visualize what someone is talking about when they're talking about perusing the World Wide Web or surfing the Internet. But if the instructor sits in front of somebody's computer and shows the learner what that means, the learner understands.
I had my 81-year-old mother come over last week. I put her in front of the World Wide Web, and we went surfing together. Well, she ended up having a great time. She found stuff on archaeology and Mayan ruins, which she really loves, and I ended up downloading stuff for her. But it could never have been described to her in words - and she's an avid reader. Now she calls and says she wants to come over and surf some more.
Most of what people visualize when they hear the terms isn't accurate. I think that's what the hesitancy is. We're asking people who have had no true exposure to say whether they want it or not. We're asking people to tell us something based on what their internalized realities of something is, which may not be accurate.
LR: If you remember that you're dealing with probably 85-90 percent of the population, who either resist technology or say, Give me a personal motivation, then you can see why it's so difficult to explain the World Wide Web. A good chunk are just going to want to resist it, but an even bigger chunk are going to say, "Show me why it will work for me; what will it do for me personally?"
That's why with Dr. Weil's mother, as soon as the woman was shown that it could do something for her, she was ready to go surfing again.
OTI: Given that an increasing number of jobs rely on computer expertise, what kinds of steps can we take to relieve technophobia?
MW: Dr. Rosen and I strongly believe that when technology is being introduced into a new system, there's a certain way of doing it correctly and a lot of ways of doing it incorrectly. We believe not only that the system that is going to be introduced should be pretested but also that the attitudes of those who are going to be the end users should be assessed. Then the users need to be placed in training groups based on that assessment. In other words, you can split people into the hesitant prove-its and the eager adopters, because each one of them needs a different kind of teacher. We talk often to people who are put in the same class, in which the eager adopters are bored to tears if the teacher goes at the hesitant prove-its' rate and in which the resisters are scared to death watching the eager adopters race through the technology if the teacher goes at the eager adopters' pace.
Introduction needs to be personalized. We've spoken about how the introducer needs to be comfortable with technology and should introduce it in a very down-to-earth fashion, not presenting more than one or two concepts at a time. The concepts that introducers start with need to be those that end users will find the most motivating and exciting. Then they need to get hands on and doing it themselves very quickly.
A very poor style of introduction is for a trainer to be pushing the buttons, having the screen change, and saying things like, "See? Isn't this fun?" or "Isn't this easy?" while the people in the class are thinking they don't know how they got there. You need to get hands on, and you need to have time to practice and play with the technology very early in the process, because it's the playing with the technology that reduces fears and builds confidence and motivation.
OTI: What kind of advice would you give someone who's not in a classroom setting but who is nervously sitting down to a computer?
LR: I would say first that even though the ads for the technology say, "This is easy; just turn it on and let's go," what you want is to have someone who is really comfortable with the technology - and again, someone who is calm and relaxed and who can talk without using jargon - to show you a few things - not a lot. Then the instructor should stand back - hands off the keys - and let you try. Instead of having your trainer lean over, bang a few keys, and say, "Here's what you do," the person should say, "Okay, touch this key and see what happens." That's been a real problem in training people to use computers. The eager adopters know which buttons to push, and it's hard for them to keep their hands off.
MW: My belief is that the technology should not be learned alone. I really believe there should be, on some level, a buddy system, whether it's a friend or a neighbor or a relative or a coworker. The idea of sitting in front of the technology with the manual open and turning it on and thinking you're going to know what to do is an unconscionable situation for anyone to have to place himself in, because it puts one in a bind that could be so easily overcome when somebody is there to help walk and talk one through it.
LR: Only if you're an eager adopter do you think it's easy to find solutions to problems.
MW: Or fun.
LR: That's right. For 85-90 percent of the population, it's not fun, and it's not easy, and they're not sure that the solutions exist.
OTI: Does it get easier? Do people become less technophobic over time?
MW: Absolutely. When I said earlier that hands-on experience builds confidence and motivation, users actually become less technophobic over time and in general learn problem-solving skills. They find self-calming and self-motivating ways of handling situations - ways that come only with practice and time.
OTI: Employers have a tremendous influence over the tone of their organizations and the attitudes of their employees. What would you recommend that employers do - or what actions or steps should they take - to help their technophobic or Internet-phobic employees? What attitudes should they have?
MW: Dr. Rosen's answer to that is to hire us.
OTI: Good idea. Do employers need to be told this is an issue and that it's not just a matter of getting people training?
LR: I think that employers need to value not only the technology but also the psychology underlying the technology. They have to respect that 85-90 percent of the people in their company are not going to be eager adopters, and they need to find out who is who. They should do some preassessment: find out who are the eager adopters, who are the hesitant prove-its, who are the technophobes, who are the resisters. And they really need to treat those people differently from each other. If you identify technophobes, you can't do anything with them until you reduce the technophobia. If you identify resisters, you've got to get at why they are resisting. Once you find that massive group of hesitant prove-its, then you've got to find a way to hook them in; you've got to find their personal motivation to get them excited so that they will be able to even participate in the process.
MW: It's also important for businesspeople to note that if they don't take into consideration that there will be in their companies resisters and technophobes for whom they have done nothing to help, then they're going to suffer reduced worker productivity and lower job satisfaction, their profits and their efficiency are going to decrease companywise, and there will be more mistakes and errors and higher employee absenteeism. Often people wonder, "How do we justify the cost of technology?" I like to add that it's not simply justifying the cost of technology. Technology can only streamline corporate functioning and save time if the people are using the technology comfortably and accurately. But you don't get to that level until you've carried out some form of intervention by increasing awareness and acceptance.
LR: It's not sufficient just to have a training program. You have to have what we label Exploration and Enhancement - E & E - time that is simply playtime. You have to let people play - to explore the technology on two levels. They have to explore in order to see what's there, but they also have to explore the technologies through their reactions to it. So they have to experience pushing buttons and not knowing whether something's going to go wrong, something's going to stop, or something's not going to work. Then they find out, "Gee, I can push buttons." Or "I can find my way back." Or "Wow, this is actually fun."
For more information about Byte Back Technology Consultation Services, contact Drs. Rosen and Weil at 790 Town and Country Road, Orange, CA 92868; +1 714538-6890; lrosen@dhvx2O.csudh.edu.
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Permission granted to reprint this article by OnTheInternet Magazine publisher and editor Wendy Rickard Bollentin.