Social Norms and Energy Efficiency

“When people are free to do as they please, they usually imitate each other.” -Eric Hoffer

The energy efficiency market is dominated by incentive programs that make strong assumptions regarding the economic rationality of households – think discounted CFL bulbs and mail-in rebates for Energy Star appliances.  Are we wrong to always assume households act economically rational when considering efficiency?  A growing interest in behavioral frameworks for energy efficiency programs is challenging this assumption and several recent studies support a shift from pure economic incentive to a greater behavioral focus.

One of the most interesting topics currently being explored by utilities (primarily through OPower programs) is the power of social norms.  Research has shown that households tend to imitate one another and OPower taps into this tendency by mailing out energy reports that compare household energy use with neighbors in similar homes.

This simple reminder of how your household fits into your neighborhood with relation to energy use seems to motivate behavioral changes that result in 2-3% reductions in energy use.  The cost of providing this information is relatively inexpensive, especially compared to rich incentive programs.

However, there are two hurdles to overcome.  First, if households tend to imitate one another, how will low energy use households respond to comparisons that show their energy conservation efforts to be outside the norm?  With only the comparison, which is a descriptive social norm, low energy use households actually show a slight rise in energy use.

This phenomenon is referred to as the boomerang effect and is well documented in academic literature.  Research has also found that adding an injunctive social norm (like a smiley face) seems to counteract the boomerang effect by reinforcing that the low energy household is not an outlier but rather a leader.

The second major challenge facing behavioral programs is the persistence of savings over time.  Will the energy saving behaviors become habits or will households’ interest in the program wane over time as they revert back to previous high energy use tendencies?  The persistence of savings is an enormous opportunity for additional study.

Overall, social nor- based approaches to energy savings will certainly not create widespread changes in energy use.  But the ability to better understand and tap into individuals’ motivations will enhance existing programs, increase interest in energy efficiency, and hopefully drive deeper investments by households and communities.

[A descriptive norm refers to people's perceptions of what is commonly done in specific situations. An injunctive norm refers to people's perceptions of what is commonly approved or disapproved of within a particular culture.  Source:  Schultz, Nolan, Cialdini, Goldstein, Griskevicius. (2007). The constructive, destructive, and reconstructive power of social norms. Psychological Science 18 (5) pp 429–434.]

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