A new, solar-powered apartment building in Philadelphia is offering residents and neighbors real-time information on whether each unit is saving the expected amount of energy.

Indicator LEDs on the outside of the building glow green, yellow, or red showing the energy consumption status of individual apartments. But, there is no energy-shaming: the LEDs won’t indicate which unit they represent.The Battery building designed by Onion Flats incorporates a wide range of energy conservation features, including feedback on the performance of the entire building and individual apartments.

Social Proof Saves Energy

Over the years, experiments have shown that social proof is an effective motivator for getting individuals to use less energy. Messages about saving the planet don’t work, but subjects who think their neighbors are saving energy will strive to do the same.

One experiment showed that simple smiley faces reduced energy use. Two smiley faces were awarded to those who used the least energy compared to their neighbors. One smiley was a “good” score. A “frown” face that signaled a poor job of conservation was tested but eliminated. Apparently, some customers were upset by the negative comparison.

The visible displays on the exterior of the apartment building are intended to “create a dialogue with the community” about saving energy. Presumably, passers-by will be informed of what the color codes mean by signage. One reviewer notes,

The result is a prototypical building that dynamically and somewhat subversively creates a competitive social consciousness around energy consumption within the building’s tenant community but also within the neighborhood community at large.

But, does a “competitive social consciousness” change behavior in a positive way?

Unintended Consequences

One risk is that of undesirable social proof. If most of the units glow red, then high-energy users will feel their behavior is normal. Residents would feel no normative pressure to use less energy.

There’s even a sort of backfire effect that can make those using less energy start to use more. Robert Cialdini and co-authors Noah Goldstein, and Steve J. Martin describe what they call “The Magnetic Middle” in their book Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive. Less competition, more reversion to the mean.

It’s tempting to manipulate these lights as a behavioral science experiment. What happens to energy consumption if all of the lights are green? Or, all but a few? Perhaps half and half? But, ethical behavioral scientists frown on deliberately providing false information to change behavior, even if the resulting behavior is socially desirable.

Behavior Booster

Could the “social proof building” approach be made to work even better? One thought: give each resident a display that would show the number of apartments that are meeting or exceeding energy use goals – a green bar, or series of green dots, perhaps. Skip the red – even a few red units might suggest that behavior is acceptable. Those energy-guzzling apartments might still exist, but at least they would be less obvious. And, the resident should see their own green light when appropriate – instant feedback that they are keeping up with their neighbors.

What do you think of this building’s use of social proof? Does turning a building’s exterior into a behavioral cue qualify as neuroarchitecture? Would energy-shaming by, say, having a red light identify the apartments that are using too much electricity, help or hurt? Leave a comment her or on Twitter (@rogerdooley).

Social proof: This building uses big LEDs to show if each apartment is saving energy