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Won't You Be My Climate-Conscious Neighbor?

New research suggests social comparison can be an effective way to reduce energy consumption.

Limiting climate change will require convincing people to reduce their energy consumption. New research reveals a simple and effective way of doing so, based on a widely shared proclivity: our tendency to compare ourselves to our neighbors.

A large-scale study reports informing power-company customers about their neighbors' level of energy consumption inspired them to turn off lights, or turn down the thermostat. This effect was far stronger in states where people believe conservation is a behavior valued by their fellow citizens.

We may care deeply about the environment, but "we need to believe that others care about it too," says the University of Exeter's Oliver Hauser, a member of the research team behind the study. "People believe, rightly or wrongly, that a majority of those around them know what's right—and they are afraid that they might be told off if they behave in a different way."

The study, which was published in the journal Nature Human Behavior, begins by analyzing data on more than 16 million households in 27 states. It was compiled by Opower, which the researchers describe as "a firm that is contracted by utility companies to help meet energy conservation requirements."

Around half of the households received with their energy bill information comparing their usage to those of approximately 100 nearby homes. In a graph, their energy usage was contrasted with the neighborhood's average rate, as well that of the most-efficient 20 percent of area households.

Over the seven years of the study period, Opower found providing this comparison information curtailed energy consumption. But the rate varied widely from state to state: In some, power usage declined by 2.5 percent, while in others, the decrease was only about 0.8 percent.

To discover why, the researchers surveyed 2,000 residents in the same 27 states. Using seven-point scales, participants reported the extent to which they personally believed energy conservation helps the environment, as well as the degree to which that feeling was common in their neighborhood.

The researchers found the more people felt their neighbors valued conservation, the more likely they were to reduce their energy consumption. However, their own convictions on the matter did not significantly influence their energy usage. Peer pressure was a far stronger motivator than personal conscience.

A final experiment, featuring 561 people recruited online, confirmed the power of social conformity. Participants who were told that their neighbors believed saving energy was important "were more willing to subsequently reduce their energy consumption" than those who were told their neighbors didn't particularly care.*

The implications for policymakers are clear: Providing this sort of comparison information to everyone could bring energy consumption down. Creating a new norm for energy-related behavior will be a far trickier task, but the rewards of doing so would likely multiply over time. At the very least, governments and corporations alike can set an example—and reward households that follow their lead.

The drive to keep up with the Joneses can certainly inspire wasteful consumption, but this research shows it can also push people in a positive direction. If a majority of driveways in your neighborhood feature a hybrid, your gas-guzzler may stick out—and not in a good way.

A secret weapon for combating climate change may be the comfort of conformity.

*Update—September 18th, 2018: This post has been updated to more accurately indicate the sample size of one of the researchers' experiments.