The behaviour of others can be used to encourage people to be more efficient in their energy use — both to save money and protect the environment.
An environmentally conscious attitude can spread simply by osmosis. That is to say, if you think your friends and neighbors care about the environment, you’ll be more likely to care about it too.
So say two scientists who have just published a study on the “critical role of second-order normative beliefs in predicting energy conservation” in the journal Nature Human Behavior.
“Sustaining large-scale public goods requires individuals to make environmentally friendly decisions today to benefit future generations,” the authors explain. “Recent research suggests that second-order normative beliefs are more powerful predictors of behaviour than first-order personal beliefs.”
In other words, if some members of a community think that saving energy helps the environment, other members of that same community will likely try to curb their own energy use too.
“We found that when people believe their neighbours cared about energy conservation, they were more likely to subsequently save energy,” says Jon Jachimowicz of Columbia Business School, a lead author of the study. “This shows it is not only what most other people are doing that matters to us, but also whether we believe they care about this particular behaviour.”
The researchers examined the case of Opower, a leading provider of customer engagement and energy efficiency cloud services to utilities in the United States. Opower sends energy bills to more than 60 million households worldwide, showing people how their energy consumption tallies with that of their neighbors. It has been found that this information has encouraged people to reduce their own energy consumptions, leading to savings of more than $2 billion in energy usage.
In their study, the researchers analyzed data from more 16 million households across 27 states in the US for over seven years. They found that the same “descriptive social norm” information on energy bills resulted in a 2.55% reduction in energy savings in some states; in other states, however, this information led to only a 0.81% reduction.
Why the marked difference? It turned out that the reason is that people are influenced by what they neighbors do — and what their neighbors think of them. “In US states where people thought that their neighbours cared a lot about energy conservation, Opower’s information about neighbours’ energy consumption is associated with greater energy savings,” explains Dr. Oliver Hauser of the University of Exeter Business School, who was the study’s other lead author.
“In places where people thought that their neighbours did not care, it was associated with much lower energy savings,” Hauser adds. “The behaviour of others can be used to encourage people to be more efficient in their energy use — both to save money and protect the environment. This is particularly true in places where people care what their neighbours think of them.”
The researchers say these findings “could be extremely valuable for energy companies as they work to help customers save money and protect the environment.”