Using less energy at home
‘Persuasive technology’ in people’s home might lead to reducing energy consumption. Essential for success is the integration of sound technology, effective persuasive principles and attention to ethical values.
Persuasive technology aims at changing the attitudes and/or behavior of people. They can be used to help people save energy at home. While the possible benefits of persuasive technologies are clear, it also raises ethical questions regarding the autonomy and privacy of the user. The technology contains a view on ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ behavior – can this be left to private companies? The project identified ways to make persuasive technology psychologically effective (e.g. by using a face on the interface that looks like the user), but also ethically sound (e.g. by giving the user sufficient autonomy). In some cases these two demands were found to be in tension.
What are ‘persuasive technologies’?
Characteristic for persuasive technologies is their interaction with the individual user; the technology’s suggestions and actions are adapted to the individual. This makes it very different from – and possibly more effective than - mass campaigns as a tool to get people to change their behavior.
There are two different ways in which people become users of persuasive technology. With so-called ‘nomadic’ products the user chooses to adopt a persuasive technology. An example is the ERCOT Energy Saver app. With ‘centralized’ products the user is involuntarily confronted with a persuasive technology, for example when an energy company installs certain persuasive devices in people’s homes.
In this project the following activities were conducted:
- An extensive overview was created of how households can reduce their energy consumption and which factors influence this (such as feedback, social norms and default rules). It forms a helpful source of information for further development of persuasive technologies.
- The researchers also identified new ways in which technology might be able to effectively influence people. For example, ambient lighting can be used. And an interface using an artificial human face may be more easily trusted by its user when it looks like the user.
- Regarding ethical acceptability the researchers concluded that it is highly relevant how much autonomy the persuasive technology leaves to the user. Furthermore, the evaluation made by the persuasive technology on what counts as sustainable behavior should be reliable and trustworthy.
In some cases the psychological effectiveness of persuasive technology stands in tension with its ethical acceptability, for example the application of subconscious persuasion or questionable feedback to the user of the system. Persuasive technology requires more policy guidance, the researchers argue, as advances in ICT make it ever easier to implement it in various domains and large societal and commercial interests are at stake.
From the lab to real homes
Psychologists and philosophers worked together in this project. The research started in a lab setting, thereby providing the right infrastructure for experiments. The input of partner Smart Homes guided the scientific research questions towards questions relevant for society and interesting for the applied setting of Smart Homes. The many contacts of Smart Homes in the field of domotics were invaluable to get an answer to questions about how people consume energy ‘in the real world’, and in real homes.
In the course of the project a new societal partner joined the project, namely energy company Eneco. The company was at that moment in the concept phase of the development of new services for their customers. It was considering persuasive mechanisms and recognized that this research project could help them to do this in the right way – that is, both psychologically effective and ethically acceptable. Eneco joining the project led to an additional graduate student working on the topic, a “spin-off” which was originally not planned. The new sub-project focused on a related but additional question, namely to what degree recommendation systems for energy consumption can activate a specific mindset in people.
One third of all energy consumption takes place within the build environment. Reducing that consumption is crucial for a sustainable society. Technological innovations alone are not enough: people also have to change their energy consumption behavior. Persuasive technology can motivate people to do so. Such technology aims at persuading human agents to behave in socially valued ways by giving information, providing feedback, and taking over actions (see text box).Official project title: