This report has (1) unpublished references and (2) volatile references. Author must fix. - RBL

Persuasive Software

Serena Faruque
December 11, 2010

Submitted as coursework for Physics 240, Stanford University, Fall 2010


My colleagues and I devote much time to creating new technologies that perform tasks using less energy, or perhaps offer more efficient ways of generating power. However, there is another side to addressing the upcoming energy crisis: convincing people to use less energy. This is, of course, a very complex subject, something that can be done on the scale of national policy, or by designing efficient grids, or sundry other methods. However, I will focus on an emerging approach, persuasive technology, which uses technology to change human behaviors. Since it is difficult to compare different forms of behavioral change, I will consider two specific examples.


GridWise is a program at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, funded mostly by the Department of Energy, to create a smart grid. The ultimate goal is to reduce peak demand, and create a more balanced energy grid.

During the past 10 years they have carried out two studies. One involved using testing dynamic pricing for a year. [1-3] In this case, appliances for 112 houses were controlled by a local program that connected to a central network, which was connected to both diesel generators and the existing grid. Instead of having a fixed cost for electricity, the price was determined every 5 minutes, in a two-way auction. Each device had a "comfort level" that determined how sensitive that particular device was to the price. With a high comfort level, the device purchased electricity regardless of the cost, and with a low comfort level, the device purchased electricity only when it was cheap. The households received a check worth the amount that the system saved. The scientists then attempted to the model the resulting behavior through a portfolio model. After a year, the system was found to have reduced the peak demand by between 5 and 20 percent, and moved the peak as well. It also demonstrated how extra generators could be integrated into the grid.


OPOWER is a company with similar goals as above. [4,5] It is headed by Robert Cialdini, who attempts to use his expertise in marketing and psychology to make a more effective energy report for households. The differentiating feature of his report is the inclusion of data from peers. This company states that the inclusion of such data makes 80% of people participate in energy saving activities, rather than the purported 5%. In an initial study, it was found that of three groups of households, one had received no information, one that received information about energy conservation, and one the received information about both energy conservation and and their neighbors conservation efforts, the last group yielded a statistically significant lower energy consumption than the other two groups. [6] Larger field studies yielded a statistically significant energy consumption lowering of 1.5 to 2 percent, with the results sustained over the studies. [7]


As seen above, persuasive technologies can be effective in reducing energy consumption. Clearly, this area has been an exciting area for businesses, but there is a great deal of room for further quantitative, and especially comparative, research.

© 2010 Serena Faruque. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] D. J. Hammerstrom et al., "Pacific Northwest Gridwise Testbed Demonstration Projects," Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, PNNL-17167, Part I and Part II, October 2007.

[2] D. P. Chassin and L. Kiesling, "Decentralized Coordination through Digital Technology, Dynamic Pricing, and Customer-Driven Control: The GridWise Testbed Demonstration Project," Electricity J. 21, 51 (2008).

[3] W. S. Baer, B. Fulton and S. Mahnovski, Estimating the Benefits of the GridWise Initiative: Phase I Report," Technical Report TR-160-PNNL, Rand Corporation, May 2004


[5] H. Allcott, "Social Norms and Energy Conservation," MIT Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research 09-104, October 2009. - Unpublished. - RBL

[6] R. Cialdin and W. Schultz, "Understanding and Motivating Energy Conservation Via Social Norm," 2004. - This is a final project report for the a grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. - RBL

[7] I. Ayres, S. Raseman and A. Shih, Evidence from Two Large Field Experiments that Peer Comparison Feedback Can Reduce Residential Energy Usage," 2009. - Unpublished NBER Working Paper. - RBL