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From Voting To Energy Usage: How Social Pressure Affects Our Behavior

A voter casts his ballot on Tuesday, March 5, 2013 in Hardwick, Vt. Vermonters are heading to their town halls and school gymnasiums for Town Meeting to vote on town and school budget. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot)

A voter casts his ballot on Tuesday, March 5, 2013 in Hardwick, Vt. (Toby Talbot/AP)

The next time you get a statement in the mail from your energy provider, take a good look at it. Depending upon your provider, you may see a little graph comparing your home’s energy usage to your neighbors’. It turns out this is one of the simplest, most effective tools in changing human behavior — social pressure and the perception of “normal.” We explore this phenomenon with two great thinkers on the topic.

Guests

Robert Cialdini, social psychologist at Arizona State University and author of “Influence: Science and Practice”

Alex Laskey, president and co-founder of Opower

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The New York Times “The [Sacramento Municipal Utility District] had been trying for years to prod customers into using less energy with tactics like rebates for energy-saving appliances. But the traditional approaches were not meeting the energy reduction goals set by the nonprofit utility’s board. So, in a move that has proved surprisingly effective, the district decided to tap into a time-honored American passion: keeping up with the neighbors.”

USA Today “They’ve tried attack ads, mailers, phone calls and Facebook campaigns. Now interest groups that want your vote are resorting to a new tactic: shame.”

Scientific American Mind “All societies subscribe to a norm that obligates individuals to repay in kind what they have received. Evolutionary selection pressure has probably entrenched the behavior in social animals such as ourselves.”

TED Blog “The locals who heard the message that 77% of their neighbors turned down their A/C, Also turned down their AC, creating a marked difference in energy consumption. As Laskey says, ‘If something is inconvenient, even if we believe it, persuasion won’t work. But social pressure? That’s powerful stuff.’”


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  • hankmarvin

    I get these statements, and they could be useful – however they do not reflect the data in a useful way.  They should show the energy cost per sq ft living space.  Saying one uses X% more energy than one’s neighbors isn’t  very helpful or informative if most of the residences around you are small apartments and your residence is a large 4 bedroom. 

    We have CFLs in all our outlets and conserve energy judiciously.  But these reports do not show that effectively because they do not take into account he differences in home size.

  • Mabatiste

    I get these statements and would also like to see per square footage usage.  I’m usually in the top 10% energy efficiency, but I don’t really know if I’m being compared to my neighbor with a large house or my neighbor with an equally sized apartment. I still want to be in the top 5%, so yes, I do want to compete against my neighbors.

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