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Keeping up with the Joneses

Hearing how our neighbors are saving energy prompts us to do the same

It doesn’t take much to encourage people to save energy—they just need a little nudge. In a study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Robert Metcalfe, an assistant professor of markets, public policy & law, found that showing householders how their energy use compares with that of their neighbors prompts them to save more.

Metcalfe and his coauthors analyzed the behavior of more than 42,000 households in Southern California during a peak load event, when electricity is at its most expensive. They tested responses to social nudges, prompts designed to guide an individual’s actions by comparing them to those of others. One set of households—the control group—received no nudges, another received energy report phone calls and a document comparing their results to their neighbors’ usage, and a third received just one of the two reports.

Those who got one report trimmed their energy use by 2 to 4 percent compared to the control group. Those who received both social nudges cut their usage by nearly 7 percent. According to the researchers, achieving the same impact with price increases would take a 70 percent hike in the cost of electricity.

“People care about a lot of different things beyond prices,” says Metcalfe. “This might be one way to get people to conserve at these peak times.”