Is it childish to be influenced by smileys?

Have you ever wondered why smiley faces are so powerful? I ask because they’re significant in the world of behavioural economics and psychology.

Here’s one example you probably know already: the way that OPower reduces energy consumption in US communities by employing social proof in the way that energy use is communicated. The image here shows how it works in practice, with clear communication on household energy use in relation to neighbours reinforced by a ‘great/good/below average’ rating, illustrated with smiley faces as appropriate.

The key thing to note is the impact of the smileys and rating; without them, usage tends to converge on the mean, so high users reduce usage, and low users increase over time. The smileys stop this happening, saving lots of money and carbon, which is the point; the initiative is designed to reduce energy usage. (Click here to read a paper on this).

Why is this example important in the work I do? Because when I’m running a With The Grain workshop, introducing people to insights from behavioural sciences, prior to helping people use these insights to generate ideas on how they can encourage certain behaviours, I use the OPower example as a ‘jumping the shark’ moment. To most people, it seems so absurd that such a simple measure should have such an effect on our behaviour that it feels right to give participants the right to say that they aren’t convinced. I invite them to say so if they feel I am taking them down the same path that script writers took Happy Days viewers!

The objection (or at least surprise) that people have is generally that something so ‘childlike’ or ‘childish’ can have such an effect on adults.

An experiment at Yale (paper here) found that babies accepted a video of a ball striking disordered blocks and appearing to create order – but only if the ball had a ‘face’. This has provoked interest among those interested in why humans are disposed to believe in deities, but I think it’s also interesting for those of us trying to use insights from behavioural sciences in our work. It is surely less troubling to see the way that such an apparently simple thing can greatly influence our behaviour not as ‘childish’ but as being innate.

In my view, it’s easier to work with effects that we think influence us because of an innate pre-disposition, than it is to work with something that we see as childish, not least because the latter idea carries with it a sense of immaturity that should, over time, leave us.

It seems, humans aren’t like that; the evidence shows we are influenced as adults by smileys. We might as well embrace the fact, and work with the grain.