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The invisible hand of ambient eco-feedback.


The highly nuanced face of feedback.

In the paper, “Can Ambient Persuasive Technology Persuade Unconsciously? Using Subliminal Feedback to Influence Energy Consumption Ratings of Household Appliances” by Jaap Ham, Cees Midden, and Femke Beute we are presented with the possibility that ecofeedback tools might not only willingly guide you towards better environmental stewardship, but that they may be able to reach into your brain and compel you without your knowledge. It’s pretty much what conservatives have been proposing environmentalists have been doing for generations – brainwashing the public towards economy killing green lifestyles. Or something like that.

In this paper, the researchers were ultimately interested in ambient displays, which they propose are “able to influence attitudes or behavior without conscious attention to that persuasive technology by the person being influenced.” This is not altogether the definition of ambient being used by other researchers, given that ambient displays are mostly consciously evaluated, but do not contain explicit readings or instructions common in others forms of feedback. Ambient displays are highly desirable as they can be imbedded into many common household items without too much modification. They can also be quite elegant.

Robin SaveEnergy the embodied agent from .ppt clip art hell.

Robin SaveEnergy

Participants in this study were presented with various sets of three household appliances consisting of a melange of three appliances that are energy efficient and six that are less so. Participants were then asked to determine which appliance used the least amount of energy. After each selection made by participants they received feedback about the correctness of their choice from an embodied virtual agent, named Robin SaveEnergy. Robin is quite concerned about energy consumption and, as you can see to the right, kind of creepy looking.

There were three experimental conditions: 1) the supraliminal condition which  received feedback from a happy or sad Robin for 150 milliseconds; 2) the subliminal group, which received the same kind of feedback as in condition 1, but for a much shorter duration (25 milliseconds), which is not something that would be picked up consciously; and finally 3) a control group who did not receive any feedback at all. Condition number 2 is a condition that contains what is known as subliminal priming, and unlike many studies on this site, this was the main focus of the study, rather than on the design of the feedback tool.

Participants attitudes about the relative energy efficiency of all the appliances was measured after 90 trials, and it was found that all participants were able to correctly identify the appliances that were the most energy efficient. However, those in both the supraliminal and subliminal conditions indicated bigger differences in energy consumption ratings between the low energy consumption appliances and the high energy consumption appliances. That is to say, both groups that received feedback (whether they knew it or not) gave more correct ratings of the relative levels of energy consumption of the appliances. This suggests that feedback helps learning on tests of energy efficiency rating, whether the feedback is consciously available or unconsciously available – possibly by “pairing the household appliances that use little energy with smiling faces, and the other household appliances with sad faces, the general evaluation of these appliances may have been conditioned, and that may have influenced the energy consumption ratings made by our participants.”

One of the issues with this research is that participants where made to stare directly at the computer monitor that was/was not providing them with feedback. To what extent the same adjustments in attitude, let alone behavior, might be measured in people who are only experiencing the feedback in a more peripheral fashion, is not established here, and when we think of ambient feedback tools, it is normally in this peripheral, indirect, in-the-background fashion.

Ah, there is yet so much research to be done in this field!


Ham, J., Midden, C., & Beute, F. (2009, April). Can ambient persuasive technology persuade unconsciously?: using subliminal feedback to influence energy consumption ratings of household appliances. In Proceedings of the 4th International Conference on Persuasive Technology (p. 29). ACM.

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