So, would you stop washing your clothes in warm water if your best friend tried doing it in cold and said her jeans were coming out clean? Would you be more likely to weatherize your house if your college roommate said that it had cut her heating bill by 30 percent? And if your mom got one of those power strips that turn off devices that suck electricity in the middle of the night, would you do the same?
In 2009 I wrote about a company (now called Opower) that blends behavioral science and data analysis to find ways to help utilities get their customers to use less electricity. At the time, it was enabling power companies to send out bills comparing customers’ energy usage with that of their neighbors. Smiley faces adorned the bills of energy-efficient users; their less-efficient neighbors got frowns.
The thinking behind all this, of course, is that it’s not so much factual information that motivates behavioral change — knowing that smoking is bad for you, or that most electricity generation emits heat-trapping carbon dioxide – but the way that such information plays off social relationships and creates peer pressure. Now the company is harnessing social media to further that kind of psychological connection as well.