The National Council of Psychotherapists
and Technology Attitudes
- A Research Paper -
By Prof. Dr. Konrad Morgan, PhD(Edin.), MBPsS, MBCS
Researchers at the department of Information Science at the University of Bergen, Norway are investigating the possible connection between suggestibility and computer or technology addiction. This research, which is being led by Professor Konrad Morgan, has shown promising links between high hypnotic suggestibility and extreme computer or technology use. Such work promises to extend our understanding of computer and technology addiction.
The increasing pervasion of information technology within everyday life over the past decades has shown numbers of individuals who are spending increasing amounts of their lives in a cyber or on-line world. Although many people find fulfilment and social satisfaction from their cyber interactions small groups also report that their use of information communications technology disrupts their social or business commitments to an extent that in extreme cases they endanger their jobs or significant relationships.
The original focus of Professor Morgan's work was in the area of computer and technology attitudes. Indeed since the late 1980s Morgan and his team of researchers have looked at many aspects of computer attitudes and have developed a useful and well-respected tool for measuring technology attitudes called the Technology Attitudes Questionnaire (TAQ).
As part of this work Morgan and his team have explored many aspects of an individual's personality, environments, and early history in a systematic way in order to find correlation's between these factors and computer addiction or phobia. This work has also provided Morgan and his team with an increased understanding of gender differences which are often reported in connection with computer use.
Searching for Predictive Patterns
Morgan's work has founds strong and consistent links between levels of parental encouragement in exploring technology and later computer confidence and phobia. Such that children of both sexes who were not encouraged to explore technology were significantly more likely to develop negative or stressful associations with computers or technology in later life. In contrast, children whose parents encouraged them to explore technology or computers were significantly more likely to be in the top quartile of technology competent students.
An explanation for reported gender differences in technology attitudes?
Morgan's research proposes that the gender differences reported in the computer literature are explained by differences in parental encouragement for children when exploring technology or computers. These findings have proven useful in detecting students who enrol within technology courses and who are likely to have need for additional tutorial or lecture support in order to successfully complete technology based courses.
A complimentary aspect of this work has been with so called "computer addicts". Even if it is questionable if individuals can actually become physically addicted to technology or computers, given a large sample of people exposed to technology there are usually a small percentage who use the available technology for abnormal duration's and intensities. Examples found in Morgan's research include students who spend 18 to 20 hours a day 7 days a week in the computer terminal rooms and employees who spent similar amounts of time "on-line" or working with computers. In many cases these individuals became obsessively centred on aspects of technology based communications or exploring the cyberspace of the World Wide Web.
Why do people become addicted to information and communication technology?
There are several proposed explanations for these types of obsessive behaviours, including the voyeuristic nature of web surfing, during which it is possible to see more and different intimate or emotional aspects of others than might normally be available in traditional "real world" environments. It is also proposed that "rewarding" events occur in a semi-random manner when using these new communication and information technologies. So that the user is never sure if the next rewarding interaction will occur within a minute or an hour. Such intermittent reinforcement is known to be highly addictive from behaviourist studies and from the literature on addiction in gambling.
The final factor, which is proposed to be highly influential in these settings, is the lack of information, which is typically available from the other participants, found in such online interactions. Such a lack of information encourages individuals to fill out any missing or ambiguous information in a social interaction from their own mental projections. It is proposed that this is responsible for many rapid cyber-romances and many "email flames", where individuals over react to electronic communications between chat and email users. When a communication is ambiguous individuals tend to use their own imagination to fill any missing information, leading to situations where feelings of loneliness or isolation cause inappropriate or inaccurate projection of understanding and idealistic compatibility on cyber-partners.
The role of imagination and fantasy in technology addiction
During research which was attempting to identify which, if any, personality types were most influential in predicting extreme attitudes towards technology Professor Morgan's research team identified strong correlation's between high scores in fantasy proneness and self reported extreme computer use. So that those individuals who worked more than 18 hours a day on the computer were significantly more likely to be highly imaginative and fantasy prone.
This finding was no more than an intriguing result until Morgan's team was involved in evaluating the potential of using subliminal messaging to improve user's attitudes towards a computer interface. Although this study found little support for such an application of subliminal messages it did include some simple measures of suggestibility within the battery of survey measures applied to the subjects within the study. In this particular study the suggestibility tests were included to check if high suggestibles were more or less effected by the presence of subliminal messages. Although the effectiveness of subliminal messages was not supported by this study, Morgan's team did discover strong correlation's between high suggestibility and long or extreme computer use. So that highly suggestible individuals were significantly more likely to be among the users with the most computer use.
This finding raised several interesting questions and in the mid 1990's Morgan's team conducted their first study which was explicitly designed to look at the possible link between extreme computer use and hypnotic suggestibility. In co-operation with the computer Consultancy branch of a major computer company in southern England, Morgan's team took a sample of 20 computer consultants and asked them to report on their computer use in co-operation with a colleague. Subjects were asked to report the types of computer-based task performed and the duration of those tasks. Their colleagues were then required to cross check these self reported activities for accuracy. In addition to work based computing activity the subjects were also asked to report on any recreational use of computers, such as playing video and computer games.
This procedure while not perfect, allowed for some control of the inaccuracies involved with traditional self-reporting of "addictive behaviour". This reporting of computer use was conducted over a month long period and was combined with several other survey methods. For example in addition to the Technology Attitudes Questionnaire (TAQ) developed by Morgan's team over the past decade the subjects were administered the Harvard Hypnotic Suggestibility Test. This test provides a simple measure of how many suggestions a subject follows in a standardised hypnotic procedure lasting around 30 minutes. There are 10 identified tests ranging from closing eyes to more complex texts such as immobility and amnesia.
Working hours in the modern workplace.
One of the surprises which came from this study was the very long working days which were considered standard by these individuals. The shortest working week was 46 hours and the longest over 70 hours. The average subject worked over 10 hours each day on the computer and the most extreme members of the group regularly worked 16 to 18 hours a day on the computer. Regardless of other findings this result provides an interesting and disturbing comment on the mental and physical pressures which modern work places on its employees.
Hypnotic suggestibility and technology addiction
When Morgan's team finished their analysis of the data from this study they found highly significant correlation's between high hypnotic suggestibility and extreme attitudes towards technology and more significantly for this paper between hypnotic suggestibility and extreme computer use. Individuals who scored above 7 out of 10 in the hypnotic suggestibility test averaged 14 or more hours on the computer each day.
Confirmation and replication
Such an interesting and intriguing finding raised several questions, but first Morgan needed to establish that these findings were not caused by some factor only found within this subject population. For this reason Morgan and his team have conducted several replications of this study in the years which followed. All have shown a consistent relationship between intensive computer users and high scores in hypnotic suggestibility.
Implications and future work
Based on Morgan's work over the past 7 years it appears that there is a link between extreme or excessively long use of the technology and high scores in hypnotic suggestibility tests. Whether excessive computer work makes individuals more susceptible to suggestion or if high suggestibility makes technology use more attractive remains an unanswered question.
A possible method of help for computer and technology addicts?
Regardless of the causal mechanism involved these findings offer a possible method to help individuals who find their obsessive use of technology interfering in an unwelcome way with their social or business commitments. Making use of the computer to administer suggestions it may prove possible to help obsessive computer users to reduce their computer and technology use to more controlled levels.
Morgan and his team are currently interested in ethically controlled investigations and evaluations of computer based suggestion. The finding that the most obsessive computer used may be among the most suggestible opens the way to online therapy that may be a highly effective method of these individuals.
The unknown medium of cyber-suggestion
However before this computer based method can be fully exploited it must be more fully understood. For that reason professor Morgan and his team are actively looking for interested individuals who would like to collaborate in such cyber based investigations. Both as co-investigators and of course as volunteer subjects for any future controlled online studies.
Morgan believes that with the increasing use of online technology it is important that such research is conducted in a responsible and controlled manner. Already there are psychological counselling and therapeutic services offered online by American psychologists. It is therefore urgent and important that standards for ethical behaviour and guidelines for effective use of new technologies should be developed by the controlling authorities for therapists employing hypnosis and suggestion.
It is hoped that Morgan's research will help to establish some preliminary information for such controlling and advisory bodies in the area of cyber or e-suggestion.
Professor Konrad Morgan is currently director of Educational Technology, Department Chair and Professor of Human Computer Interaction at the University of Bergen in Norway. Prior to his current appointment he has held senior positions in Bermuda, Sweden and the United Kingdom. He is senior author on numerous publications and is well-known keynote speaker at international congresses and conferences. Professor Morgan has led numerous internationally funded research projects in the area of human factors, individual differences and human computer interaction. His current research interests include educational technology and individual differences, including hypnosis and computer attitudes.
Contact details: Prof. Dr. Konrad Morgan, PhD(Edin.), MBPsS, MBCS - Director, Educational Information Science and Technology Unit, Department of Information Science, University of Bergen, PO Box 7800, Bergen, Norway