Page last updated at 09:29 GMT, Tuesday, 26 May 2009 10:29 UK

Hi-tech aims to improve lifestyle

By Mark Ward
Technology Correspondent, BBC News

Man on scales, SPL
The project will give feedback about activity levels

Facebook, mobile phones, and energy meters are helping to see if people can be nudged into living healthier lives.

The three-year project will see how people react when data is fed back to them about their energy use and activity levels.

While it has been established that such feedback can alter behaviour, the researchers want to unpick the mechanisms of such change.

About 800 people will be recruited to the project which starts in September.

Normal life

The research, called the Charm Project, builds on the work of academics Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein which implies that the way people are told about poor lifestyle choices influences how they react.

Instead of simply telling people to stop, it has been shown that it is more effective to reveal how one person's behaviour ranks against their peers.

Adopting a less confrontational style can, claim Thaler and Sunstein, "nudge" people towards better choices.

"It's about influencing behaviour by telling people what other people do," said Dr Ruth Rettie, head of the Charm Project and a reader in marketing at Kingston University.

"There's quite a lot of evidence that we can influence, not just by nudging, but by informing them about social norms," said Dr Rettie.

Social norms are the broadly accepted ways that people conduct themselves and encompass such things as manners, cleanliness, and behaviour.

However, said Dr Rettie, norms can differ from person to person and many people follow a set of norms without much thought about why they do so, or whether they are choosing wisely when living by them.

Via three separate investigations, Dr Rettie and her colleagues will gather data about consumption or usage behaviour related to sustainability, feed information about it back to the subjects, and see how that "social proof" changes behaviour.

The project will not dictate norms to people. Instead it will find out what people do and then tell everyone involved about that activity.

Three trials

One investigation revolves around mobile phones that have software installed on them to measure how active their owners are.

200 people will take part in this trial, said Dr Parisa Eslambolchilar, a lecturer in human-computer interaction at the University of Swansea who is developing the phone application.

Electricity meter, BBC
By monitoring power, people will be nudged toward lower use.

"We're looking at how often people take exercise, or do they prefer to walk to work, or their office, or do they prefer driving?" said Dr Eslambolchilar.

Participants will be given feedback about their activity and whether they are more or less active than the others in the group. Data from accelerometers in smartphones and PDAs will be analysed to work out how far people are walking. GPS will be used for those that cycle, to work out their average speed and distance travelled.

Still to be decided is the way that information about activity will be fed back. One idea is to represent individuals as flowers in a garden with the more active participants growing taller over the course of the investigation.

Household energy use will be monitored as another of the Charm Project investigations. This will see small energy meters placed in the homes of 400 people recruited for the project.

"The monitor clamps around the cable, it does not interfere or use home power," said Dr Matthew Studley, a senior researcher in robotics at the University of the West of England who has developed the device.

Information about energy use will be sent to the researchers, who will then inform participants of how much they used and how that compares to others in the trial.

Feedback

Information might be fed back through text message, a project website, or a letter in the post, said Dr Studley.

"We are not particularly interested in the amount of energy that they are using, it's the change in their behaviour as a result of the feedback," he said.

"We expect that most will reduce their consumption in response to feedback on their own and other people's usage," said Dr Studley. "What we do not want to happen is that people using far less than everybody else increase their usage of energy."

The third investigation will revolve around social networking site Facebook and will investigate how friends influence each other and see what it takes to nudge people towards more "sustainable" ways of life.

Dr Rettie said the Charm Project aimed to get a better understanding of why people make the choices they do and what can influence them.

"There has been a tendency in academic circles to think that choices are made on a rational and conscious basis," she said. "We find out their attitudes, consider their intentions, and that will give you their behaviour."

But, she said, research shows that many of the things people do are not based on rational choice.

Finding out what informs choices and how to influence them was likely to become far more important as the need to live more sustainable lifestyles becomes pressing, she said.

"If we are going to change and make lifestyles more sustainable, then changing this process is very important," she said.



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