Two recent New York Times articles have caught my attention: one that deals directly with motivating consumers to be energy efficient and one that explores the complexities — and predictability — of human behavior.
The latter was in this Sunday’s edition, “When Humans Need a Nudge Toward Rationality.” It mentions an interesting social experiment performed in men’s rooms in Amsterdam: images of flies were etched into the porcelain urinals, thereby giving gentlemen something to aim at. The result? “Spillage” was reduced 80%. The article goes on to reference a book called “Nudge” by Cass R. Sunstein, who has recently been named by President Obama as administrator of the White House’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. “Mr. Sunstein,” the article reads, “favors nudging people to save more, eat better, weigh less, invest more sensibly, pay down debt, avoid hazardous mortgages, drive safely and wear bike helmets.”
One of the best ways to “nudge” people to adopt sustainable behaviors was covered in an earlier Times article from Saturday, January 31.
“In a move that has proved surprisingly effective,” Sacramento Municipal Utility District in April “began sending out statements to 35,000 randomly selected customers, rating them on their energy use compared with that of neighbors in 100 homes of similar size that used the same heating fuel. The customers were also compared with the 20 neighbors who were especially efficient in saving energy.” The Times added, “When the Sacramento utility conducted its first assessment of the program after six months, it found that customers who received the personalized report reduced energy use by 2 percent more than those who got standard statements.”
Peer pressure works. We have been hard pressed to get consumers to ‘fess up to it in the numerous focus groups we’ve conducted on green and energy efficient behaviors, but we see examples like the one from SMUD repeatedly having the desired, nudging effect. The same is true with recycling. Ask a consumer who lives in a neighborhood with an active curbside recycling program what it feels like to not put their own blue bin by the curb, and they’ll talk of glares from the neighbors and feeling ashamed.
We’ve written here before about how the new administration must include consumer education in the mix along with energy audits and free home weatherization. This is what we’re talking about. It’s not just screaming, “save money” at people. It’s about evoking some of the most universal human emotions: we all want to be accepted, we all want to feel smart, and, best case, we all want to feel like the cool kid on the block.