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I recently read about what I think is the most ingenious plan to get people to voluntarily lower their energy use: Make it a competition.

A start-up company called OPower is working with utility companies across the country to mail utility customers their energy usage — and comparing their numbers with the neighbors’ numbers.

This tiny incentive of wanting to keep up with the neighbors — in this case by keeping energy use down — has been enough to get customers to lower their energy use by about 1.2 percent to 2.8 percent. While that number seems small, multiply it by millions and the country could see some serious energy savings.

To make sure it was the effect of these energy use statements that were driving energy consumption down, each utility company working with OPower would send the statements to 60 percent of their customers, and use the rest as a control group. As expected, only the group receiving the mailing made changes to their energy use.

But it gets better. The most fascinating part of this phenomenon involves research by behavioral psychologist Professor Robert Cialdini, who is also OPower’s chief scientist.

His research on this topic has found that just showing people how their energy consumption compares with their peers would indeed lead high energy users to lower their consumption toward the average. However, it would also lead the energy savers to start using more energy, in order to behave in a way that is closer to the mean.

The solution: a smiley face.

The simple act of placing a smiley face on the low energy user’s consumption report kept their energy use from drifting upward. In other words, all they needed was a little reinforcement that what they were doing was a good thing.

While it seems like creating a little bit of competition is what we need to get people to modify their behavior, maybe a virtual pat on the back is all we need to keep that behavior modified.

Would we be more motivated to keep doing those things that are a bit of a hassle — leaving the car at home, keeping the heat low — if we knew someone was watching, waiting to give us a high-five when we’re done?

Imagine all the ways this could be incorporated into our lives. Applause when the shower gets turned off in under three minutes! Stickers for riding your bike to work! Cheers at the checkout when you buy in bulk!

While the concept sounds alluringly simple, OPower does use advanced software and consumer data analytics in order to produce these comparison numbers for utility customers. OPower’s next step will be to combine their data with smart grid technology to give customers more specifics about how and where to save money on particular devices in their homes.

I imagine it can’t be too long before corporations find other ways to take advantage of the fact that people love that smug feeling of satisfaction when they know they are doing something better than others are.

-- Text by Margaret Southern, Cool Green Science Blog