Is Peer Pressure the Environment's Killer App?

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Taking advantage of all the social transparency Facebook has created, one app puts all of our energy usage out there for our friends to see, hoping competition and peer pressure will encourage better habits. We tried this new Opower app for ourselves after it was brought to our attention by The New York Times' Leslie Kaufman. Theory says it should work. But, we predict a few problems with turning Facebook rivalries into conservation.

The app, which came out today, has Facebookers enter their utility information and some general stats about their abodes. It then calculates kwH usage spitting out a comparison rate for everyone on their wall to see. Our usage gets measured against not only to other homes around us, but against our friends'. It's this social pressure the company hopes to capitalize on. 

The app relies on behavior modification theory that suggests we care more about what our peers do than how our behavior's direct effect on the environment. "It is fundamental and primitive," Robert Cialdini, a social psychologist at Arizona State University told Kaufman for a 2009 Times story on using this theory to foster competition between households to lower consumption. "The mere perception of the normal behavior of those around us is very powerful," he explains. Back in 2009, utility companies gave subscribers "report cards" with frowny faces grading energy use, pitting them against their neighbors. “At the beginning, the competition wasn’t what interested me," one competitor told Kaufman, "but then when we lost a challenge to Arlington by one pound of carbon, I realized I really wanted to win."

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Socializing and competition happens on the Internet now, though. So, Opower has moved the game to Facebook. In theory this should work better than our utility bills, instead of a comparison with 20 neighbors, we have to showcase our waste in front of hundreds of Facebook friends. "[T]he company is harnessing social media to further that kind of psychological connection," explains Kaufman. The difference, however, is that Facebook apps, unlike utility bills are opt-in. And so far, not many of our friends have signed up for the game. We do get an overall ranking, but right no we're number one among our friends. It's much harder to compete with some vague national average, than people we see every day. 

The app also creates a disconnect between the physical and virtual worlds. It gives various suggestions for how we can improve our score, like, hanging laundry to dry or cleaning refrigerator coils. But, taking those things from computer world ideas to actual chores, that's a whole other story. 

Image via Shutterstock by Dawn Shearer-Simonetti

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.