New study finds people use less energy when their neighbors do, too

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By Terri Williams
For business

Most people try to conserve energy for two reasons: they want to keep electricity bills low, or help the environment, or both.  However, a new study reveals a third reason for why people are becoming more eco-conscious: peer pressure.

According to a recent study published in the Nature Human Behavior journal, people use less energy when they think their neighbors care about the environment.

“What we find in our research is that people hold beliefs about what it is their neighbors care about, and those beliefs may or may not be entirely accurate,” says Jon Michael Jachimowicz, a PhD candidate at the Columbia School of Business and one of the study’s authors.  And it doesn’t matter if these beliefs are accurate or not, he explains. “What matters is their own beliefs, and not what the community actually thinks.”

If someone doesn’t necessarily care about saving energy – but believes that their neighbors do – Jachimowicz thinks these individuals will change their behavior. “They fear that they might be penalized or punished in some way by their neighbors, and this expectation motivates them to behave in a way that gets them to evade punishment,” he says. “They’re trying to think one step ahead of their neighbors.”

The effects of societal pressure for conservation increase when more community members engage in this behavior, which is known as a “descriptive social norm.”  Jachimowicz explains, “When we see a lot of people doing something and we ascribe their behavior to an underlying motive that is related to what it is they care about – in the study, we call it a second order normative belief – we are even more likely to adhere to that norm.”

So, if one lives in a community that appears to prioritize energy conservation, Jachimowicz says it produces a certain response. “That heightens the stakes for me for not engaging in energy conservation, so I will comply for fear of being punished or fear of standing out.”

Other motivating factors

“There are also other factors that influence consumers’ motivation to reduce energy consumption, such as cost-based motives, and also choice architectures – how the environment is set up to inform the option set that is available to consumers,” explains Oliver P. Hauser, PhD, a senior lecturer in Economics at the University of Exeter Business School in the U.K. For example, he says some people simply may not be aware of the different options that are available to them.

“There’s also a great deal of inertia:  a problem with a lot of energy conservation is that it involves change,” Hauser says. “Humans have habits – they’re set in their ways, and changing what they do can be difficult.”  In fact, he says one of the easiest ways to tackle daily habits, like turning off the lights and other small behaviors isn’t to start out small.  “It’s easier to start out with big things like a one-off purchase like a new refrigerator or AC unit to reduce energy conservation,” Hauser says. “Or consider a technological solution that doesn’t involve making decisions, such as home a thermostat that keeps your home at a certain temperature.” Since these types of changes don’t require human intervention, they are easier to enact. “By doing nothing, they are doing something,” Hauser explains.

Both Jachimowicz and Hauser believe that the psychology behind energy conservation can be used to help policy makers who are concerned about our growing energy footprint.

“Research shows both Republicans and Democrats underestimate the extent to which their communities care about energy conservation,” Jachimowicz says.

Additionally, people are more likely to save energy if they can save money, too. “As it relates to these one-off purchases and technological solutions, having tax incentives or other economic incentives can go a long way to helping people make these purchases to reduce energy consumption,” Hauser concludes.