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Are you leveraging the power of social comparison?

Want to know what one of the most common human behavioral patterns is? You already know, really.

It's our herd behavior. We just about always act in a way that mirrors what the people around us are doing.

We are also naturally competitive. We want to be in the herd, but we also want to be better than our other herd members.

We can use these two simple behavioral drivers to use the power of social comparison to help motivate people (or schools or companies) to do more good things.

Here are some examples,


Opower is a company that includes a small yet powerful chart in every resident's electricity bill. The chart shows people how much energy they are using in relation to their neighbors. Households get a smiley face on their bill if their energy reduction has been good. They get a double smiley face if they’ve been really good! Double Rainbow OMG!

Watch the video from the founder. This video was one of my key moments that introduced me to behavioural psychology.


The Guide to Greener Electronics

Every year, Greenpeace releases their annual Guide to Greener Electronics which involves rating and ranking all of the big tech companies by their eco-friendliness. Each year, there are winners and losers.


The Carbon Disclosure Project

The Carbon Disclosure Project enables the process of comparing companies to each other based on their carbon emissions. The Carbon Disclosure Project produces a list of the largest publicly listed companies, all ranked by the amount of carbon they releases per quantity of revenue.


How to use comparison in design

You can use numbers to tell a compelling visual story you can use to encourage change.

When you want to tell a story, it’s great to tell it in numbers. It’s even better if you can show an image of those numbers.


A good comparison design will show,

1. How big the numbers look in real matter, such as a barrel, a bottle, or a cloud.

2. Show the audience’s/reader’s/player’s individual score as a graphic such as a drop of water.

3.  Show a nearby players score as a similar graphic that clearly illustrate the size difference.


Ben and Jerry’s embodied carbon

I grabbed this great example from the Ben & Jerry’s website. They have worked out that a tub of ice cream releases two pounds of carbon emissions. They added the car graphic which makes it really easy to understand.

What I’d like to see is a graphic for their dairy-free (almond) based ice-cream compared to their dairy ice-cream.​​​​​​​

Some ideas for how you can display comparison 



Show the volume of water represented as:

How much water you use in a day

How much water your neighbors use in a day

How much water an average person in India uses in day


Energy use

Show annual energy usage based on your household size:

You live by yourself

You live with one other person

You live with two other people

(Hint: living together with other people is one of the most impactful things you can do to cut your own carbon emissions. Living alone is bad for the earth, yo! )


Your lunch

Compare the climate impact of a meat vs a veggie burger.

Your meat burger lunch @ 800 calories

Your veggie burger lunch @ 800 calories

Beef vs a plant based meal is always a fun one because beef is soooo environmentally intensive.


Car pollution

Compare the carbon emissions of your audience’s car with an electric car.

Pollution from your car

Pollution from an electric car

You could use a graphic like this to prepare people to ask them to write a pledge to switch to an electric car when they next trade in their vehicle.


Compare districts

An example I use in my video course “How to Save the World with Gamification” is a letter comparing a target country with the next most closely performing counties showing the amount of household waste they create.


You can compare lots of different types groups

Compare cities

Compare businesses

Compare corporations

Compare colleges

Compare individuals

Compare streets

Compare neighborhoods

Compare schools


If you're interested in more ideas, make sure you download the free Gamified Earth Matrix I put together.


A thing to beware of

There is a catch when it comes to comparison that can cause the technique to backfire. If we show a high performing person how they are doing in a chart, they will see how different they are from the group and the law of social proof will pull their performance backwards towards the group average. But good news that this phenomenon can be avoided by adding an emotive indicator such as a smily face and some words like “great job!” to positively reinforce the high performance individual.


Why we need to be using social comparison

The exciting thing about getting the kind of data we need to compare members of a group, is that data opens up a myriad of behavior and gamification techniques that just aren't available to us if we don't have measurement at the core of our strategy.

The theory of disclosure shows us that just showing data has a powerful effect on our behavior. When we add the technique of social comparison by ranking from best to worst, we can really kick our audience into action.

You can learn more about many of these techniques in my video course "Save the World with Gamification".


Making social change easy

We don’t need to waste our time making environmental programs that don’t necessarily work, and just “hoping” that they will start to work . . . someday.


What's really exciting that it is quite possible that if we can just focus our strategies on data, comparison and rank, and then people will just make the change we want them to of their own accord. When we know the rules of the herd, we can push the herd in the right direction and they will keep running  .  .  .  to a better place.

I'm extremely fascinated by the potential of social competition for change. I think we are at the very beginning of the changes we can see with better use of the tools of behavioral psychology. With these gamification techniques and tools, we can make changing the world the really fun, imaginative and colorful experience it should.


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Join us in the Facebook group to leave your comments and ideas about this article. I'd love to hear from you!


Check out the other articles in the 21 Days of Gamification series.

-> Five easy low tech gamification techniques you can use to save the earth

-> Why you should be using leaderboards to change the world

-> Why you should put measurement at the center of your creative strategy


Find this kind of thing interesting? Join our community of world-changers and get access to my free resources that show you how to apply data, behavior change and game design techniques to your cause for the epic win.
Author: Katie Patrick
Katie Patrick is an environmental engineer and a designer. She helps sustainability professionals, entrepreneaurs and civic innovators to apply powerful techniques in data science, game design and behavioral psychology so they can make epic wins in environmental and social change. She lives in San Francisco with her little daughter Anastasia.
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