Energy Efficiency and Behavior Change

Energy Efficiency and Behavior Change

We’re all learning about human behavior in quantum leaps these days thanks to advanced technology, the intersection of economics and psychology, and greater understanding of neuroscience. Here’s what we’re seeing out there right now at the confluence of behavior change and energy efficiency:  social norming, peer influence and rebates/rewards.

The social norming approach is used to reduce troubling behaviors or increase positive behaviors by informing people that bad behaviors are happening less often than most people think. This is the OPower model: showing people how their energy consumption compares with others around them. Studies differ on the long-term effects of this strategy. In the short term, energy use declines among those who are identified as using more than their neighbors. (According to several studies, however, those efficiencies haven’t held up for more than a couple of months.)

The trick here is to understand that this is a hard concept to test. Consumers vastly underestimate the power of social norms on their behaviors, so they will tend to react negatively to this in a research situation. However, it’s been shown to be one of the most powerful influencers of behavior change in real-world situations, producing significant positive results. We recommend incorporating social norming into energy efficiency programs, but caution that initial gains may taper off – so it can’t be the only behavior change strategy deployed.

Similar to social norms, peer influence can be leveraged for behavior change. But unlike social norms, when information is coming from a distant third party, peer influence comes from familiar social contacts – friends, family, colleagues, etc. Eco Pulse 2010 and Eco Pulse 2011 both showed the potential for getting people to talk. In 2010, among those who answered yes to “Have your friends, neighbors or co-workers initiated discussion or promoted changes in behavior regarding any of the following topics?” energy efficiency was mentioned 23% of the time. And among those, more than half (56%) said those discussions resulted in behavior changes or new purchase patterns in their households.

Eco Pulse 2011 tested hearing messaging from children. This, too, proved to be very effective at prompting behavior change: 33% said that their children had brought up energy conservation topics. Of those, 71% said those discussions resulted in behavior change.

Peer pressure is a powerful strategic tool to leverage, and we recommend including it in energy efficiency campaigns. The trick is figuring out a natural way to insert energy into everyday conversations.

The most frequently mentioned barrier to energy efficiency purchases is financial. Rebates and rewards help, but now that federal tax credits for energy-efficient home improvements is no longer in effect, homeowners and renters have less incentive than in recent history. Energy efficiency is largely extrinsically motivated, so there must be a larger carrot offered in addition to the rebates, which many consumers believe to be inadequate to get them to act.

Once the desired behavior is achieved – purchasing a more energy efficient product – a reward structure must be in place to complete the cycle. Rewards should be tangible, like a one-time rebate on their monthly bill. Receiving a social media badge isn’t a meaningful reward for someone who’s extrinsically motivated. We recommend incorporating greater incentives and rewards for energy efficiency programs.

There’s still a great deal to explore in this realm, and we’re looking into some exciting new ideas. We’d love to hear what’s working for you and what’s not. In the meantime, we’ll keep our eyes open for new initiatives and keep you posted right here.

About the Author

Karen Barnes

Karen is a former contributor to Shelton Insights.

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