Here’s a great example of applied persuasion that appears to generate actual behavior change on a fundamental issue: energy use. This WSJ story outlines the operation of a Tendril project aimed at getting energy customers to use energy more efficiently through behavior change tactics. Tendril asserts a 9% reduction in energy usage in a small pilot study they are testing. Let’s tear this apart and see what’s going on.
First, a 9% reduction is dead on the average effect size a wide variety of research teams report for behavior change interventions (Leslie Snyder , Blair Johnson, iStandard Model). Leslie Snyder’s team found in that meta an r = .09 average effect size which translates exactly into a 9% reduction in this instance. That’s a Small Windowpane effect, that 45/55 effect, so it would not be obvious to an interested observer, but it is far enough past random variation to see that it is a real effect. Thus, compared to what’s out there in the peer review research literature, this Tendril pilot study is doing okay. It’s real. It’s making a real change.
Second, the article describes a variety of behavior modification tactics that are well established in both theory and practice. Tendril’s project aims more at what my training and experience calls behavior modification rather than behavior change. Bmod comes out of the clinical tradition in scientific psychology and seeks to change a problem through learning principles most notably the Reinforcement paradigm strongly connected with BF Skinner. If you scan the article you see tactics that emphasize goals, consequences, and a lot of timely feedback. The assumption here is that energy use is an operant behavior; in other words people operate on their environment with their behaviors to discover an optimum outcome from the When-Do-Get rules. The Tendril project manipulates the When’s, the Do’s, and the Get’s to help people change their energy use actions.
Third, this is clearly a pilot project. The article notes,
The results are hardly definitive, of course. This test involved just 91 participants. In addition, it isn’t clear at this point what kind of recurring costs would be involved with behavior-modification programs. The Cape Light test cost $75,000, says spokeswoman Briana Kane.
I’m in the dark on the cost/benefit ratio of this intervention. If the program costs 75k, but earns a 9 point reduction, does it make money, lose it, or break even? Usually in a good pilot project up to 50% of the cost is for evaluation. You spend a lot of money to do good science, but you buy Truth when you do it right and that is priceless under the correct circumstances. Thus, if Tendril develops a functional program, costs will decrease significantly because evaluation expenses will drop.
On the other hand, pilot programs are notorious for producing better results than a full community program will ever achieve. Pilots are like hothouse flowers. As long as you test them in a hothouse, they grow. But what you want is a program that flourishes in the wild and it’s almost impossible to generalize the hothouse to the real world, so in the full scale implementation, you often get a weedy garden. People are different when you do bmod in a, relatively speaking, highly controlled environment compared to their normal life. Unless you can maintain those effective and proven When-Do-Get modifications, the pilot won’t grow up.
Third, assuming they are not doing this already, Tendril and other energy management businesses might want to consider the persuasion and behavior change tactics in the Primer and Blog. I’m not seeing evidence in the article write up about the Cascade and Standard Model. Tactics aimed at internal changes in beliefs, attitudes, and norms would probably make an excellent complement to the bmod tactics already in place. This kind of behavior change approach might also be quite a bit cheaper compared to a good bmod operation. This would create an inside-outside program that could combine for powerful and persistent behavior change.
Fourth, I’m a complete idiot, but it sure would be nice to see the TACTs here. At first glance, this seems obvious and easy – Use Less Always Everywhere! That’s a nice and simple TACT for the persuasion source, but for receivers it is pretty close to constant near-death strangulation. Part of the persuasion problem with the Green movement is that Use Less Always Everywhere relentless TACT. Energy use should not require constant high WATT monitoring, yet the simple Green TACT does exactly that. Our society is built on energy use for all the functions of the modern world – the Green TACT essentially denies the modern world without actually realizing this.
Let’s get out of here.
Tendril and other energy companies are actually producing behavior change on energy use. Instead of marching in the street with puppets or passing ineffective laws or writing op-ed pieces, they are working on the ground with real people in real time. I also see clear signs of thoughtful planning-testing cycles. As I’ve noted in other posts, the current state of the art here focuses upon straightforward behavior change tactics like feedback and reinforcement. Given the intelligence of the people in this business, look for new behavior change tactics from operations like Tendril. Once they get as far as they can go with the status quo, they will seek new plays.
P.S. Somebody at Tendril warrants more than an AttaBoy for the media coverage on this project. Hey, you got an exclusive post on the Persuasion Blog, baby, and my fabulous advice!