The power of social norms
in Greener Homes on 22 July 2012
Setting an example is more influential than you might think.
IF you reduce your environmental footprint, what effect does it have on your neighbours?
A few years ago, American psychologist Robert Cialdini studied the electricity use of about 300 Californian households (PDF). After establishing the homes’ baseline consumption, the researchers hung a card on each door, informing the residents how they compared to the neighbourhood average.
Over the ensuing weeks, they found that those above the average cut their use. But, interestingly, those below the line actually increased their consumption. They were drawn towards the social norm – the “magnetic middle”.
There’s more to the story, however: when the researchers added a smiley face to the low users’ feedback, they stuck with their lower usage.
In another study undertaken around the same time (PDF), householders told Dr Cialdini and his team that in saving energy, their primary motivations were to preserve the environment, be socially responsible and save money (in that order). But in practise, the researchers found that the energy conservation habits of their neighbours had the strongest pull of all.
Subsequently, Dr Cialdini began working with US software company Opower, helping them to craft electricity billing information in a way that encourages conservation. And they do it, in part, with smiley faces.
The Opower approach is spreading. Some local electricity retailers have begun benchmarking their bills, but unless it’s done carefully – to avoid the upward pull of the magnetic middle – it won’t help reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.
Yann Burden, from Billcap, has been working on energy information software to suit Australians. He says the lessons apply to more than just electricity. The Target 155 campaign on Victorians’ water consumption worked in a similar way.
“People put up signs if they used bore water or tank water. We were all very proud of the effort we made,” Mr Burden says.
That kind of signalling is important, both for the wider public and for green-minded folks who go beyond the call of duty. Based on their research on hybrid vehicles, economists Steven and Alison Sexton developed a theory of “conspicuous conservation”.
They identified a trend in which individuals, driven by their concern about climate change and environmental damage, “seek status through displays of austerity rather than ostentation”.
The economists found that the Toyota Prius was more popular than competing hybrids because of its distinctive shape. It was recognisably a hybrid. What’s more, people were willing to pay a premium for that recognition.
“People want to signal,” Mr Burden explains. “Householders don’t want to hide their solar panels. They want people to see them, and that’s good – as long as they’re well oriented. It’s much better than trying to guilt people into change.
So if you’re composting or reducing packaging waste, growing vegies or installing draught proofing, make the most of it by telling your family, friends and neighbours. You could even put a sign in your window or a sticker on your letterbox explaining what you’re up to.
“As a society that needs to consume less, we need these positive social norms to help us understand that once we’ve saved money, we shouldn’t spend it on more consumption,” Mr Burden says.
“Signalling comes through our consumption decisions, but also through people having conversations. I think we’ll see energy use becoming the next dinner party conversation – people asking, ‘Well, how many kilowatt hours do you use?’”