In order to tackle the adverse effects of climate change in our lifetimes, the global community will need all hands on deck. One software company has found a way of reducing energy consumption by tapping into social psychology.
One way of thinking about how to approach climate change is to divide the issue into ‘wedges’. One wedge would be to increase renewable energy production, another would be to increase energy efficiency in the electric grid, and a third, to make buildings more energy efficient. Along with these other improvements, changing human behavior is another, very important wedge.
Two families that are demographically similar, living side by side, in similar apartments, can use dramatically different amounts of energy— the difference of which can be attributed to behavioral differences.
Keeping up with the Neighbors
These behavioral differences were demonstrated in a famous psychology experiment that focused on home energy use. The research team, led by two psychologists, Robert Cialdini of Arizona State University and Wesley Schultz of California State University, San Marcos, hung a series of five door hangers with energy-saving messages on several hundred homes in a San Diego suburb in 2004. One hanger encouraged people to "join their neighbors" in conserving energy, one appealed to their self-interest to save money, another called on them to save energy to protect the environment, and a fourth asked them to conserve energy for future generations and the benefit of society. A fifth and final message simply stated that summer is here and it’s a time to save energy with no underlying reason.
The researchers measured the effectiveness of the messages by obtaining meter readings before and after the door hangers were distributed. They found that the last four had minimal effect. But the first, which mentioned the neighbors, produced a significant 10% reduction in home energy usage.