You probably think of someone who exemplifies the “keeping up with the Joneses” mindset as behaving in an obnoxious way. You may roll your eyes at a neighbor preening their immaculate clone-army-of-grass-blades lawn, but you probably still feel a tug that keeps you within the bounds of what our community considers normal.
In a new study, a team led by Columbia Business School’s Jon Jachimowicz and the University of Exeter’s Oliver Hauser set out to better understand why efforts to encourage reduced energy use get different results in different places. And they found evidence that community attitudes may make a bigger difference than personal ones.
Think of your neighbors
The researchers worked with data from a company called Opower, which shows utility customers how their energy use compares to others in their area. Opower randomly selects its participants and keeps a control group of customers for comparison.
Data from 27 states, covering about 16 million homes, shows that the average energy savings achieved by the program in each state varied from 0.8 to 2.6 percent. To study these differences, the researchers got 2,000 people scattered over those same states to answer survey questions. The questions targeted two categories of beliefs: personal beliefs about the environmental value of reduced energy use and beliefs about about the environmental value of reduced energy use.
Counter to what you might expect, they found little correlation between personal beliefs about energy conservation and the actual Opower results in that state. However, there was a nice correlation with beliefs about the attitudes of neighbors. That is, the states where Opower’s program cut more energy weren’t the states where more people believed doing so would benefit their environment. Instead, it was the states where more people felt like their neighbors were on board with that idea.
The Opower program shows its participants the average energy usage of similar homes in their community—which is what their neighbors are doing, not why they are doing it. But the researchers think that your belief about your neighbors’ intent has a big impact on how you respond to the usage data.
Going with the crowd
To provide a test of this hypothesis, the researchers ran a little experiment with more than 550 people via Amazon’s paid Mechanical Turk service. While Mechanical Turk has its share of critics, the researchers thought its survey-taking users were an especially good fit. Some Opower results had hinted at wealthier households cutting the most energy. Mechanical Turk users, on the other hand, are younger, more diverse, and less wealthy than the US average—in other words, potentially a “tougher” crowd when it comes to energy conservation.
In the experiment, subjects were asked to imagine that their utility company had given them an Opower-like report showing that they used more energy than neighbors. Then the system pretended to pull up real energy opinion data from the subjects’ home county. Some subjects were told that people in their area were among the biggest believers in eco-friendly energy use. Others were told their county ranked near the bottom in giving a hoot about going green.
Then the subjects were asked how willing they were to reduce their energy use next month. Sure enough, there was a difference between the two groups. It wasn’t a massive difference—a 0.5 point increase on a 7 point scale—but it was easily statistically significant. (However, it’s fair to note that personal beliefs about energy use were significantly correlated with results in this experiment, unlike in the 2,000-person survey.)
The researchers say their work shows something that has been seen in studies of racial prejudice, for example—the impression of cultural norms is a major driver of behavior. If you want to design effective policies or campaigns to encourage better energy efficiency, this implies there may be a better way than telling people what their actions can do for their environment.
The researchers write:
Past research has found that how we view our community and how likely we think that they will choose to cooperate rather than free-ride exerts a strong influence over our own decision to cooperate. However, our results suggest an additional component: what we think our community thinks about an issue affects our likelihood to act. In other words, people might generally agree that reducing energy consumption is needed to help the environment and save our planet, but to make it happen, they need to believe that others care about it, too.