Environmentalists have often acted as if getting people to become more eco-minded was simply a matter of providing more information: Tell someone that their car is contributing to climate change, for example, and the thinking is they’ll be more likely to switch to public transportation.
But some organizations are realizing that good old-fashioned peer pressure might work just as well—if not better.
You know those little signs at hotels requesting that you reuse your towels or be mindful of your water consumption? Research has shown that messages that say something like “80% of our hotel guests reuse their towels at least once during their stay” work better than ones that enjoin guests to be “stewards of the planet.”
This kind of messaging is called “social norms marketing.” It leverages the basic human instinct to want to fit in with the larger group to motivate behavioral changes. Letting folks know what the norms are—especially if you can let them know exactly how they’re doing in relation to those norms—triggers that primitive part of our brains that worries about getting culled from the tribe.
Sacramento’s municipal utility district has shown that this kind of marketing can motivate people to lower their energy consumption. For a year, they have been sending a new type of energy statement to a pilot group of customers. The Home Electricity Report uses bar charts to tell customers three things: the average amount of energy being used by a group of 100 of their neighbors, the average amount of energy being used by their most efficient neighbors, and the customer’s own energy consumption. Do better than average, and you get a smiley face on your statement. Do a lot better, and you get two! But do worse, and you get stamped with a stern “ROOM TO IMPROVE.” (They used to use frowny faces but stopped after customers reacted negatively.)
The agency found that customers who received the personalized reports lowered their energy use two percent more than customers who simply received generic information about local energy efficiency programs and services.
“The premise [is] that people don’t want to be seen as behaving outside the ordinary,” Bruce Ceniceros, the project’s manager told Green Technology magazine. “If they see their energy use is greater than average, they try to get [to] average. If they’re doing better than average, and they receive positive feedback, like the smiley faces, they’re motivated to work harder.”
This is good news for environmentalists, not just because it gives them another tool for their toolbox. The best news of all could simply be that it signifies how mainstream environmental behaviors have become. After all, none of this would work if the average person being exposed to these messages didn’t fundamentally agree that going green was a good thing to do in the first place.