You’re Not Alone: Using Normative Feedback to Motivate

You're Not Alone- Using NormativeOne of the three fundamental human needs that an engaging experience supports is competence. Competence is not necessarily about already being good at something so much as having a sense of growth and the possibility of future success.

Normative feedback is a tool that we can use to support both a sense of competence, by showing that people’s performance is aligned with social expectations, and relatedness, by showing people that there are others in similar situations. Normative feedback can be an effective tool for changing behavior. Two case studies highlight best practices as well as tactics to avoid.

Normative Feedback Powers Lower Electricity Consumption

Opower customers show reductions in electricity use year-round, including the peak summer season. Taken from
Opower customers show reductions in electricity use year-round, including the peak summer season. Taken from

Opower is a company that encourages people to opt into a location-based monitoring program for their utility services such as electricity and natural gas. The goal is to use normative feedback about utility use among neighbors to raise awareness of personal use, and, eventually, drive environmentally conscious behaviors. (While Opower dominates this market, it does have several startup competitors, and some industry analysts also consider products like Nest competitive.)

A sample Opower report, from
A sample Opower report, from

Opower delivers normative feedback in a sleekly formatted report along with the monthly utility bill. The report showcases the individual household’s power usage alongside both all neighbors and those neighbors who are the lowest users. Consistently across a variety of data slices, Opower has shown that people who opt into this normative feedback go on to use their utilities in a more environmentally conscious manner. They use less electricity not just overall, but also at peak times of day and year. Knowing how other people are using electricity seems to be an effective way to get people to monitor their own use.

Normative Feedback and Activity Tracking: The Paradox of Fitbit

From a Fitbit weekly email.
From a Fitbit weekly email.

Fitbit encourages users to connect with their social network contacts to share activity tracking data. Making that connection enables a leaderboard for you and your connections and allows you to compete together in challenges like the “Workweek Hustle.” Fitbit pushes users to utilize their social capabilities by touting research results that group exercise improves well being and that having social connections on Fitbit boosts steps by 27%.

But Jawbone recently published an interesting finding: Social challenges can actually be demotivating for people whose performance is lagging. This makes total sense in terms of self-determination theory. Seeing your peers significantly outperform you sends the message that your own performance isn’t good enough.

My own experience with Fitbit echoes the Jawbone findings. I’m motivated to watch my step counts when I’m either leading a challenge or have a decent chance of overtaking the leader. When one of my friends has tons more steps than me, though, I engage in a psychological discounting process. “He’s obviously just wandering the city in a fugue.” As a side note, I am sorry to my Fitbit friends for what’s happening to my step totals while I train for a marathon. Please psychologically discount me.

The lesson here? Normative feedback is good as long as it shows that you’re in the ballpark of success. Normative feedback that suggests you’re at the back of the pack is counterproductive.

Using Normative Feedback in Health Coaching

The activity tracking findings hint at a challenge that my team has always found with our health coaching products. We know that normative feedback can be helpful, but we also intuitively know that telling people they are in the most overweight group, the least active group, or the sickest group is not going to inspire change.

This infographic on smoking cessation promotes the positive physiological changes at different time points in the quit process. From
This infographic on smoking cessation promotes the positive physiological changes at different time points in the quit process. From

Effective use of normative feedback, as suggested by the case studies above and behavioral science more generally, includes:

  • Showing success or the possibility of success. To use the Fitbit example, leaderboards and challenges seem to work well for people who are at the top, but not those at the bottom. One idea might be to slice the leaderboard into segments (similar to how race results are segmented into age/sex groups) so that people can compare themselves to truly similar others, rather than folks at a much higher activity level.
  • Increased sensitivity with feedback as stigma around the subject matter rises. Electricity and natural gas use tracked by Opower is important, but not socially stigmatized the way being overweight or smoking often is. Opower may be able to deliver more negative normative feedback as a result. As the topic becomes more emotionally powerful, I recommend becoming more careful with the use of normative feedback, especially if it reflects badly on the individual.
  • Focus on relatedness rather than competence when “performance” is poor. Normative feedback serves dual motivational functions. Coaches can look to its ability to connect people when normative feedback isn’t able to show positive results on performance, whether that be activity, pounds lost, or biometric improvements. Instead of letting an overweight person know that his BMI continues to be extremely high and in the top band of coaching participants, consider normative feedback that shows the types of changes other weight loss participants are trying, the challenges and barriers people experience while losing weight, or the types of goals people have selected. It may not reflect on progress, but “54% of people trying to lose weight also struggle with eating at restaurants” will help motivation much more than “98% of people in this program have lost more weight than you by this point.”

Have you used normative feedback to try to change behavior? What have you found works best?

Got hypertension? You're not the only one.
Got hypertension? You’re not the only one.