Thursday, January 28, 2010

How a Kindergarden Mentality Can Drive Widespread Energy Efficiency

Here's an interview by Marc Gunther (MG) with Dan Yates (DY) of Opower, the energy practice educational company that is applying behavior change science to get people to use less energy.

MG: Last question. Are you the company that has put smiley faces on some of these reports, basically congratulating people for being more efficient?

DY: We are.

MG: And it works?

DY: We are and it's actually a critical component and a fascinating example of the subtleties involved in commercial application of behavioral science and behavioral psychology.

The studies -- Professor Robert Cialdini is the most cited behavioral psychologist in the country, and one of the most highly regarded behavioral psychologists in the world. He is our chief scientist.

His research specifically in this topic demonstrated that showing people how their energy use compares to their similar peers, to their neighbors and similar-sized towns, was not enough, because those who use less than the average, as Professor Cialdini calls them, energy misers, would regress towards the mean, being pulled there magnetically, in exactly the same way as the energy hogs who are using more than average were drawn downward towards the mean.

It was specifically and simply this smiley face emoticon that reinforced for the energy misers that what they were doing, this reduced use of energy, was a good thing, that just really locked them back where they were and kept them from regressing.

We've now taken it a step further, showing people not only how they compare to the average, but also how they compare to the efficient average, which is the top quintile of their neighbors. That has actually enabled us to not only prevent that slide back, but in fact it continued to drive those folks further. So, yeah, we've got not only smiley faces but even two smiley faces.

I just love this stuff -- and kudos to Marc Gunther for another outstanding piece.  There is a huge world of potential for application of Cialdini's type of work to advancing our transition to a Green Economy.

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