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OCTOBER 18, 2010

The Secret to Turning Consumers Green

It isn't financial incentives. It isn't more information. It's guilt.

A real-life experiment in engineering green behavior unfolded recently in the nation's capital.

Washington, D.C., imposed a five-cent tax on every disposable bag, paper or plastic, handed out at any retail outlet in the city that sells food, candy or liquor, effective Jan 1. But more important than the extra cost was something more subtle: No one got bags automatically anymore. Instead, shoppers had to ask for them—right in front of their fellow customers.

The result? Retail outlets that typically use 68 million disposable bags per quarter handed out 11 million bags in the first quarter of this year and fewer than 13 million bags in the second quarter, according to the district's Office of Tax and Revenue. That may help explain why volunteers for the city's annual Potomac River Watershed Cleanup day in mid-April pulled 66% fewer plastic bags from the Anacostia River than they did last year.

District Councilman Tommy Wells doesn't believe it is the nominal cost that's keeping shoppers from using bags, but rather the expectation—made clear in a very public way in every transaction—that they could make do without. "It's more important," he concludes, "to get in their heads than in their pocketbooks."

Studies dating back at least three decades clearly show the power of social norms. We tend to ascribe our actions to more high-minded motives, or to practical concerns about money. But at its core, our behavior often boils down to that old mantra: Monkey see, monkey do.

Researchers are now learning how to harness that instinct to nudge us to go green.

It's not easy. Though about two-thirds of Americans tell pollsters they are active in or sympathetic with the environmental movement, it has proved tough to get the average consumer to make even relatively simple changes, like using energy-efficient light bulbs or caulking drafty windows.

Government agencies, private utilities and nonprofit groups have tried changing behavior by giving people more information, or by dangling financial incentives, such as rebates. And these approaches work for some households. But psychologists and behavioral economists are increasingly concluding that for the masses, a simpler, cheaper approach may be in order. It can include new laws and taxes, as in D.C., but it doesn't have to.

The magic ingredient: Peer pressure.

Telltale Towels

Consider two papers published in peer-reviewed journals in 2008.

Thomas Fuchs

The first described a study involving those placards in hotel bathrooms that urge guests to reuse towels. Over a three-month period, researchers tested two different placards in a 190-room, midprice chain hotel.

One card was headlined "Help Save the Environment" and urged visitors to "show your respect for nature" by reusing towels. The second read, "Join Your Fellow Guests in Helping to Save the Environment" and noted that 75% of guests participated in the towel-reuse program. The guests who were exposed to the peer pressure—the fact that so many of their fellow travelers were doing it—were 25% more likely to reuse towels.

A follow-up study found that tweaking the wording on the placard so it was specific to the guest's room (as in: nearly 75% of guests who stayed here in Room 331 reused their towels) yielded even better compliance.

The second paper described a study involving public-service messages hung on the doorknobs of several hundred middle-class homes in San Marcos, Calif. All urged residents to use fans instead of air conditioning, but they gave different reasons for doing so.

Some residents learned they could save $54 a month on their utility bill. Others, that they could prevent the release of 262 pounds of greenhouse gases per month. A third group was told it was the socially responsible thing to do. And a fourth group was informed that 77% of their neighbors already used fans instead of air conditioning, a decision described as "your community's popular choice!"

Meter readings found that those presented with the "everyone's doing it" argument reduced their energy consumption by 10% compared with a control group. No other group reduced energy use by more than 3% compared with the control group. All four of the non-control groups slipped in the long run, conserving less as time went on, but those exposed to peer pressure continued to record the lowest average daily energy use.

"People don't recognize how powerful the pull of the crowd is on them," says Robert Cialdini, a psychologist at Arizona State University and co-author of both the hotel and doorknob studies. "It's a fundamental cue as to what we should be doing."

Influence Without Borders

Social scientists are just beginning to study whether this type of peer pressure works in Europe and Asia as well as in the U.S. The answer, so far, is yes.

For instance, researchers at Michigan State University found that paying Chinese farmers to adopt environmentally friendly techniques didn't work as well as telling them that their neighbors were already farming that way. And a recent study in India found that publishing a ranked list of the worst-polluting paper factories prodded the biggest offenders to make dramatic improvements.

Promoting a particular behavior as the social norm proves "equally influential across cultures," says Wesley Schultz, a professor of psychology at California State University at San Marcos.

And that appears to be the case whether the people being influenced realize it or not. In one recent study that hasn't yet been published, Mr. Schultz gave frequent drinkers in the U.S., Germany, Mexico and Japan personalized information about how their alcohol consumption compared with the norms in their country. In follow-up questioning, study participants in Mexico and Japan—where the cultures are more consensus-driven than in the other two countries—acknowledged that information about the social norm had swayed their behavior. Those in the U.S. and Germany—both cultures that prize individualism— said knowledge of their peers' behavior hadn't influenced them. But in all four countries, the subjects reduced their drinking compared with control groups.

The problem, from a conservationist's perspective, is that much of the environmentally friendly behavior we engage in doesn't help set social norms because it's invisible to others. We have no way of knowing that everyone else on the block has installed a programmable thermostat or insulated the attic or switched to compact fluorescent light bulbs.

What we tend to see, and perhaps envy, is the more profligate behavior: the gleaming Hummer in the driveway, the huge flat-screen TV in the family room, the emerald lawn made lush by daily watering. (One exception: the recycling bin at the curb, which is now ubiquitous in many neighborhoods.)

"I would bet that if you went into a residential neighborhood and put a red, green or yellow light on peoples' mailboxes to show who's an energy hog and who's not, people would start to change their behavior," says Paul Hamilton, a senior vice president, based in Andover, Mass., at Schneider Electric, a global energy consulting firm.

Subtle Cues

That system might not sit well with homeowners. But the private and public sectors are both experimenting with more-subtle ways to achieve the same result.

Thomas Fuchs

Microsoft Corp. has calculated energy-efficiency ratings for 60 million homes in the U.S., using data including public records about housing stock, weather patterns and utility bills, as well as information provided by residents. The ratings can be viewed free of charge online, at Homeowners can input data about their utility bills, appliances and habits to refine their score—or they can simply snoop, comparing their score with those of their friends and neighbors. Visitors to the site can also exchange energy-saving tips.

The Southwest Florida Water Management District tries to leverage peer pressure with TV and radio ads that depict neighbors chatting about their conservation habits. One recent campaign talked up the virtue of watering only every other week in winter. The result: A 19% jump in homes practicing "skip a week" irrigation, says Melissa Roe, a district spokeswoman.

Smiley Faces

Perhaps the most familiar social-mobilization tactic is the Home Energy Report produced by OPower, a consulting firm based in Arlington, Va., that works with nearly three dozen utilities around the U.S.


 The report, packaged with utility bills, graphs a household's energy use, compares it with prior months and years—and matches it against peers. Customers can see at a glance how they rank compared with both the average and the most-efficient homes in their neighborhood. Those doing exceptionally well are rewarded with a smiley face on their bill.

Utilities say homes that get the report show a consistent, sustained reduction in energy use of about 2% on average, compared with similar homes that don't receive the reports.

Two percent doesn't sound like much, but advocates say that when scaled to millions of homes, it's quite meaningful, especially since the savings are achieved without costly rebates, tax credits or mass-media ad campaigns. (Utilities pay about $10 a year per customer for the OPower reports.)

The report prompted Peter Dorfman, a software engineer in Belmont, Mass., to set aside several thousand dollars to insulate his home, in hopes of not only saving money in the long run but also joining the ranks of his most efficient neighbors. "It'll be fun to see whether it does have an impact on our graph," Mr. Dorfman says.

London-based DIY Kyoto is working on a website that would allow consumers around the world to compare their energy use to each other's. The company sells a device called a Wattson, which connects to a home's electrical meter and glows different colors to indicate whether current power consumption is low, average or high for that home. The company's co-founder, Greta Corke, is developing a site that will rank customers by energy efficiency. She's even toying with software to integrate Wattson data into personal profiles on dating sites.

With the website, which Ms. Corke expects to roll out in the first quarter of 2011, "you can compete in the world or in your neighborhood," she says. Wattson is sold in parts of Europe, Australia and South Africa and will soon be available in the U.S.

Of course, not all customers respond to this type of tactic. When George Binns, a retired engineer in Beverly, Mass., received an OPower report from his utility showing that he was using 64% more energy than his most efficient neighbors, he resolved to do exactly nothing. "I'm not a traveling man," he says. "I don't go on guilt trips."

The Competition Trap

Paul Stern, who studies climate change at the National Academy of Sciences, cautions that peer pressure so far has proved effective with "relatively low-impact behaviors" that don't require individuals to make big sacrifices. Mr. Stern argues that financial incentives and saturation marketing are often needed to inspire more-significant change, as in last year's "cash for clunkers" program, which induced many people to purchase more fuel-efficient cars.

Efforts to exploit our keeping-up-with-the-Joneses instinct can also backfire if there's too much emphasis on competition.

It has become popular on college campuses to stage energy-efficiency contests between dorms, prompting some students to take extreme measures like forgoing hot water. And the Environmental Protection Agency is now running a National Building Competition modeled on the TV show "The Biggest Loser," with a school, a hotel and a dozen other buildings vying to notch the biggest reductions in energy use. The EPA says it hopes the contest will inspire other building owners.

Such competitions, however, present conservation measures not as the norm, undertaken by average people every day, but as an extreme sport, done by fanatics trying to win a contest. That doesn't trigger our instinct to conform, social scientists say, and thus has little impact on behavior.

Shower Power

It's far more effective, experts say, to model desirable habits as a matter of routine.

Psychologist Doug McKenzie-Mohr describes one such study in his book "Fostering Sustainable Behavior." A college gym's shower room displayed a prominent sign urging students to conserve water by turning off the shower while they soaped up. Only 6% did so initially. But when researchers planted an accomplice who shut off his water midshower, 49% of students followed suit. When there were two accomplices, compliance jumped to 67%, even though the accomplices didn't discuss their actions or make eye contact with other students.

Traditional conservation campaigns have been "based on the premise that if we simply provide people with information, they will make changes in their lives," Mr. McKenzie-Mohr says. "We know pretty conclusively that's not true."

The most powerful aspect of social mobilization, researchers say, is that it tends to work on a subconscious level. Americans routinely tell pollsters that they would conserve energy to save the environment or to save money. Ask them if they'd conserve because their neighbors are doing it, and they scoff.

They have it backward. "We can move people to environmentally friendly behavior," says Mr. Cialdini, the psychologist, "by simply telling them what those around them are doing."

Ms. Simon is a staff reporter in The Wall Street Journal's Dallas bureau. She can be reached at 

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