Mon. Nov 28th, 2022
Electric power meters.

You probably think of someone who exemplifies the “follow the Joneses” mentality as someone who behaves in an unpleasant way. You may be rolling your eyes at a neighbor smoothing out their immaculate clone-army-of-grass-blades lawn, but you probably still feel a tug that keeps you within the confines of what our community considers normal. Apparently this also includes energy savings.

In a new study, a team led by Jon Jachimowicz of Columbia Business School and Oliver Hauser of the University of Exeter sought to better understand why efforts to reduce energy consumption yield different results in different places. And they found evidence that community attitudes can make a bigger difference than personal ones.

Think of your neighbors

The researchers worked with data from a company called Opower, which shows utility customers how their energy use compares to others in their region. Opower randomly selects its participants and keeps a control group of customers for comparison.

Data from 27 states, covering approximately 16 million homes, shows that the average energy savings achieved by the program in each state ranged from 0.8 to 2.6 percent. To study these differences, the researchers had 2,000 people across those same states answer survey questions. The questions focused on two categories of beliefs: personal beliefs about the ecological value of reduced energy consumption and beliefs about: what your neighbors think about the environmental value of reduced energy consumption.

Contrary to what you might expect, they found little correlation between personal beliefs about energy savings and the actual Opower results in that state. However, there was a nice correlation with views of neighbor attitudes. That is, the states where Opower’s program cut more energy were not the states where more people thought it would benefit their environment. Instead, it was the states where more people felt their neighbors were on board with that idea.

The Opower program shows its participants the average energy consumption of comparable homes in their community – what their neighbors are doing, not why they are doing it. But the researchers think your beliefs about your neighbors’ intent have a big impact on how you respond to the usage data.

Going with the crowd

To test this hypothesis, the researchers conducted a small experiment with more than 550 people through Amazon’s paid Mechanical Turk service. Although Mechanical Turk has been criticized a lot, the researchers thought the survey users were a particularly good match. Some Opower results indicated that wealthier households save the most energy. Mechanical Turk users, on the other hand, are younger, more diverse, and less affluent than the US average, in other words, potentially a “tougher” crowd when it comes to energy savings.

In the experiment, subjects were asked to imagine that their utility company had given them an Opower-like report showing that they were using more energy than neighbors. Then the system pretended to retrieve real energy opinion data from the subjects’ home countries. Some subjects were told that people around them were among the strongest proponents of environmentally friendly energy use. Others were told their province was near the bottom in giving a hoot about going green.

The subjects were then asked how willing they were to reduce their energy expenditure next month. Certainly, there was a difference between the two groups. It wasn’t a huge difference — a 0.5 point increase on a 7-point scale — but it was easily statistically significant. (However, it is fair to note that personal views on energy use were also significantly correlated with the results in this experiment, in contrast to the 2000-person survey.)

The researchers say their work reveals something seen, for example, in studies of racial prejudice: the impression of cultural norms is a major driver of behavior. If you want to design effective policies or campaigns to encourage better energy efficiency, it means there may be a better way than telling people what their actions can do for their environment.

The researchers write:

Past research has shown that how we view our communities and how likely we think they will choose to collaborate rather than participate strongly influences our own decision to collaborate. However, our results suggest an additional component: what we think our community thinks about a problem affects our likelihood to act. In other words, people generally agree that reducing energy consumption is necessary to help the environment and save our planet, but to make this possible, they have to believe that others care too.

Nature Human behavior2018. DOI: 10.1038/s41562-018-0434-0 (About DOIs).

By akfire1

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