Watch what they do, not just what they say

As digital platforms become increasingly central to everyday life, countries must accelerate their digital growth to become and remain globally competitive. The Digital Evolution Index 2017 explores just how this can be done.

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This article relates to the 2017 edition of the Digital Planet Report.

Sit in any airport lounge, coffee shop or park in any developed country – and, indeed, in many developing countries – and you will see people who only have eyes for their smartphones. Our love affair with technology is very public. So why do we profess to be skeptical about it?

“Our smartphones are inexhaustible sources of communication, connectivity and learning,” says Elizabeth Filippouli, founder and CEO of the Global Thinkers Forum. “At the same time, technology can be intimidating. It takes energy, understanding and dedication to learn its uses. There are also people who think that innovations may ultimately be harmful, because they breed a culture of isolationism and crypto anarchy.”

The DEI 17 highlights these complex views on technology, revealed by the difference between the research findings on each country’s attitude towards digital and its behavior:

stated vs revealed trust chart

Research into trust typically involves surveying people on how much they feel they trust technology – as well as institutions, processes and other people. Surveys, however, are not always a reliable barometer since they have three main flaws:  

First, consumers are not always candid – they may want to please the researcher or convey positive social values. Second, the surveys themselves may not be specific enough about whom we are trusting to do what. We may trust our neighbor to walk our dog, for example, but would we trust them to run the country? Finally, there is a misguided notion that more trust is always better – in fact, having too much trust in the wrong device, institution or politician is not a good thing. For these reasons, while survey-based measures of trust are included in the attitudes pillar of the digital trust model, it is just as important to look at people’s behavior as a proxy for trust.

“People can be skeptical about technology and still elect to use it”

Behavior provides a different lens than attitudes for measuring trust in technology. The behavior pillar reflects how individuals spend two of their most valuable assets: time and money. Through contrasting and comparing the behavior and attitudes pillars, several interesting insights emerge.

For instance, in some cases, countries have large numbers of people who claim to lack trust in technology, but in practice they are very patient with it, tolerating “friction” such as password prompts and service disruptions and showing an eagerness to buy goods online. This does not necessarily mean that people are not honest or candid in stating their attitudes, but it shows that oftentimes negative attitudes do not necessarily result in a drastic change in behavior, particularly in the short term. People can be skeptical about technology and still elect to use it.

“If relevant technologies and digital services are regularly introduced, consumers are more tolerant of friction and interruptions”

“Humans are very social and we have a constant fear of missing out,” explains Andrew Nicholson, co-founder and CMO of marketing automation company Kulea MA. “That beep on our phone conveys a nugget of information that our brain is hardwired to accept and respond to. Since our phones are constantly on, we are overwhelmed by endorphin-releasing nuggets.” Like any addiction, it seems that the more that people use technology, the more they want to use it – especially if they are rewarded for doing so.

“Our research shows that users’ reaction to their digital environment depends on the rate of change they experience,” says Dr Bhaskar Chakravorti, senior associate dean of International Business and Finance at The Fletcher School at Tufts University. “If relevant technologies and digital services are regularly introduced, consumers are more tolerant of friction and interruptions.”

Of course, the gap between attitudes and behavior varies according to country. In emerging markets, for example, people are more likely to put up with unreliable technologies and slow loading times than their peers in more digitally developed countries. This is because the rate of improvement they have experienced puts these frictions in context; a slow smartphone is better than no smartphone.

In reality, momentum plays a crucial role in changing attitudes across all markets, according to Ajay Bhalla, president of Global Enterprise Risk and Security at Mastercard, which sponsors the Fletcher report. He says: “The study shows that improving momentum and reducing friction are key. Momentum is like a tailwind, while friction is a headwind on the path to digital trust.”

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Explore further insight on the Digital Evolution Index 2017