We tend to spend a lot of time thinking about the big picture of how devastating global warming is for our world and our economy (thanks to reports like this released late last year.) But to see a change, it is going to take more than big businesses and government entities make adjustments. This effort to improve our environment is going to require regular people to make changes to their habits.
Recently Harvard Business Review conducted research to see how people could be inspired to reduce their energy usage without necessarily having to change their beliefs about climate change. One important factor was how much you think your neighbors care about energy conservation. This perception can have a big impact on how people chose to consume energy.
To complete this research, HBR partnered with utility provider Opower and examined what predicted whether or not someone was willing to reduce their energy consumption. Opower’s Home Energy Report (HER) gives residential energy customers a report of how much energy they use as well as how much energy their neighbors consume. Prior research found that this single-page document has helped customers reduce their energy use about 1-2% per year on average.
Of course, an average doesn’t give all the answers. Each time Opower implements their intervention in a new region or with a new utility company, they conduct a randomized controlled trial, comparing a treatment group that receives the HER with a group that does not. To do their research, HBR received access to the 211 randomized controlled trials Opower conducted over the last 10 years which included over 16 million households from 27 states.
While some households achieved a 2.55% reduction in energy consumption, others reached less than 1% which raises the question — why would the impact of the report be so inconsistent? The answer has to do with the core principle and motivator baked into every HER: social norms.
The report — basically a 3-bar graph called the neighbor comparison — shows recipients how much energy they’re consuming, how much energy their “efficient neighbors” are consuming, and how much “all neighbors” are consuming. It also rates the user on how they’re doing in terms of energy reduction. The graph depicts a “social norm” by communicating how others like them behave while challenging them to do better if they’re falling short of those in their community.
While those who aren’t seeing high use reductions on their reports might wonder how their neighbors are making it happen (and could come up with solutions like, “They travel all the time” or “Aren’t their kids in college?” or “They were just super lucky this month!”), they might not be motivated to make a change
However, for those who do believe that their neighbors care about reducing energy usage, they might start taking stock of their own consumption and ask different questions like, “What are they doing differently to conserve more energy then me?” or “Perhaps I could should ask for advice?” Basically coming back to the general premise that if you believe that your neighbors care about saving energy to help the environment, the more likely you will be to engage in energy reducing behaviors.
Above all, these results remind us that if we are attempting to change behavior, we must go one step farther and work to influence what a person believes, while also paying attention to what they think others believe. As social beings, we tend to care not only about what our neighbors and co-workers do, but also what they think.