An extra nudge can lead to big behavioral changes

Scientists know that social nudges — encouraging people to modify their actions by comparing their activities to those of their peers — can lead to socially desirable changes. Just a single nudge, for example, can lead people to decrease their energy usage.

New research published in PNAS by Questrom’s Robert Metcalfe and four co-authors suggests that it may be time to double down on these nudges. In a study that examined the energy usage of households who received zero, one, or two nudges designed to prompt energy conservation, those receiving two nudges saved about twice as much as those receiving just one.

To study the issue, the team analyzed the behavior of more than 42,000 households in Southern California during a peak load event, when electricity is at its most expensive. A portion of the households received no nudges to encourage energy-saving measures. Another portion received a pair of “peak energy report” phone calls and a “home energy report” document that compared their results to their neighbors. A third segment received just one of the two reports.

The results were dramatic. Those who received one of the two reports trimmed their energy use by two to four percent compared to the control group. Those who received both social nudges slashed their usage by nearly seven percent. The numbers are significant: to achieve a similar level of conservation through pricing alone, the cost of electricity would have had to climb by nearly 70 percent.

Metcalfe says that the findings suggest that at moderate levels, people don’t experience nudge fatigue. They also indicate that a series of nudges could offer an avenue to reduce overall energy consumption in ways that could be just as effective as, if not more effective than, simply charging more. “People care about a lot of different things beyond prices,” he says. “This might be one way to get people to conserve at these peak times.”

Read Metcalfe’s complete study “Testing for crowd out in social nudges: Evidence from a natural field experiment in the market for electricity” on PNAS.

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