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O rly? A smiley face makes an impact with OPower.

“If something is inconvenient, even if we believe in it, moral suasion, financial incentives, don’t do much to move us — but social pressure, that’s powerful stuff.” – Alex Laskey

For years Robert Cialdini, author of the must-read social psychology book Influence, has been studying the impact of social norms on behavior change and pro-environmental behavior (among other interesting things). He and his colleagues have learned that the right message to increase linen reuse in hotels isn’t an environmental message, but was a normative one. That is, forget about telling people what the “right thing” to do is – tell them what the normal thing to do is, which in this case happened to be re-using the same towel for a few days. They’ve also learned that people will not decrease energy consumption in the home in response moral or economic messages, but respond positively to normative messages (“Hey there! You consume way more energy than your neighbors. Consider some of these tips so to consume more normal levels of energy”). They also learned that you can decrease littering with normative messages. For the two people who have read this blog before, none of this should come as a shock; normative messaging is quite common in ecofeedback tools.

That being said, it really is amazing, given it’s efficacy, that this method of communicating resource waste hasn’t become more common. There is hope, and OPower is a great example of this hope. Influenced by Infulence, the fine folks at OPower have done wonders for the visibility of normative messaging and pro-environmental behaviors. They call it “behavioral energy efficiency,” and they have mountains of data available on their website, enough to keep energy nerds busy for a while.

“Having deployed more than 75 behavioral programs, engaged more than 15 million energy customers, and conducted more than 200 large-scale field tests, Opower has amassed the world’s largest body of experience and expertise on behavioral energy efficiency programs. We consistently and predictably deliver verified energy savings over time at an average cost-effectiveness of US$0.03/kWh saved—well below the US$0.05/kWh average for utility energy efficiency programs.” (source)

Besides, they have a page devoted to their office dogs, which really is enough for me to want to believe in and work with these people.

There are many components to their work – but the component most interesting here is the actually energy report that people receive. The changes to how people receive this information is not huge – but the devil is in the details (see below). Firstly, customers are able to clearly see how much they are consuming in relation to similar homes in their area. As you can see, they receive a rating, including a smiley face if they are doing well. Secondly, they offer a report with useful information that is pertinent to the user’s actual home environment.

The basic OPower bill.

The basic OPower bill.

The smiley face is important in that when presenting norms, one might be just as likely to increase their consumption in response to higher norms on consumption, as one might decrease consumption in response to norms of lower levels of consumption. Putting a frowney face has been found to be less effective in motivating people to consume less, presumably due to reactance. It turns out, jut knowing that you consuming more is enough to motivate people to conform to lower levels of energy consumption, the frown just makes people feel like they are being lectured via emoticon – and no one likes that.


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