Saturday, July 07, 2007


Awareness affects behaviour

At World Wide Webers, Karl Weber talks about his wife's Prius — telling us a little about the car's instrumentation, and noting how that instrumentation has changed the way his wife drives:

What neither of us anticipated, however, is how the Prius has changed Mary-Jo's driving habits. As you may know, the car's dashboard features a touch-sensitive screen that displays various kinds of information and can be used to control the sound system, the air conditioning, etc. Mary-Jo normally keeps the screen set to show fuel economy, and the effect is quite fascinating. The display shows the current mileage you are getting (ranging from less than ten miles per gallon to a maximum of a hundred), the mileage you've achieved in five-minute travel increments, and your average mileage over any period you want--the current trip, the last week, whatever.

As a result, driving becomes a kind of video game: How far can I get the current mileage bar to extend? How high can I get my mileage rating for this trip? Can I beat my score from my last trip? And Mary-Jo is clearly driving differently. Her foot on the gas is much lighter, she avoids fuel-draining accelerations and needless braking, and she uses cruise control on long straight stretches of highway.

These are significant changes for a woman who used to get antsy when stuck behind a slow vehicle. Now instead of changing lanes she smiles serenely as her speed drifts down toward 50 mph and her mileage bar stretches up above 50 mpg.

As Karl is, I'm fascinated by how being able to see what's happening changes what we do, by how awareness affects behaviour. Of course, it's not truly news, just more interesting when we see it first hand. The effect has been used often, and is the reason that we have “awareness weeks” (or months, or whatever) for various diseases, diversity groups, and such, and why we work on environmental awareness. In fact, it's why all advertising works; it's why political candidates have people just outside the legal perimeter shouting, “Herkermer Biffelwogg!” at you while you're heading in to vote. Put it in the front of your mind, and you're likely to respond to it.

But the effect that Karl talks about is particularly interesting because no one is advertising, no one is pushing anything at you. It's simply this: if you want, I'll show you what the result is when you jam the gas pedal down as the light turns green. And maybe you've jammed the pedal down for years without thinking about it, even though “they” have consistently told you that it's bad for the car and bad for fuel economy. Now, right there, you have a graphical indicator. It shows you instantly what you've done to the fuel economy. It's fleeting, but it's obvious, and it's pushed your average down irrevocably; you have to work to make it up over time, and you're not likely to do that again.

I suppose there might be people who would play the game the other way, and aim to keep the bar as short as possible. It seems unlikely, though; if one were so inclined, one would probably have bought a Hummer, not a Prius.

As Karl sums it up:

As the old business management saw has it, “You get what you measure.” Simply providing the technology to make our behavior transparent--in this case, our energy-consumption behavior--can have an enormous impact on that behavior, even in the absence of any new or special incentives. As a society, we need to look for other opportunities to apply this insight to encouraging healthful, socially beneficially behaviors.
We do, indeed. Fit more cars with this technology. Put a graphical display for the electric meter in a prominent place in the house — no one really has any idea what the effect is of leaving a light on, leaving the TV on, or leaving the computer on. Let's see it directly and clearly, and it will change our lives. And where else can we take advantage of this sort of thing?

But then there's the woman in the navy-blue BMW convertible, who was weaving a bit at almost 65 MPH in the right lane of the Taconic Parkway yesterday morning. I thought she must be futzing with a mobile phone, but, no, when I passed I saw that she was putting on mascara. Not long after, she was in the left lane, zooming past everyone at around 80, apparently having finished with her makeup. You'd think that someone who drives a nice car like that would be smart enough to know, without being told so by a dashboard graphic, that if you crash your car because you weren't paying attention to your driving... you're gonna have a bad time. (Well, at least she, um, slowed down a little while she was doing herself up.)

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