People have a tendency to consider what others think and do as right. Do these two social norms have an impact on electric energy consumption?
A group of Italian scientists has found, for the first time, how these norms relate to each other and impact the energy use of hundreds of thousands of Italian households. The findings have been reported in the prestigious journal Nature Energy in a paper titled “The interaction of descriptive and injunctive social norms in promoting energy conservation.”
The research method for this study is the same as the one used in the testing of drugs for medicine.
This implies the use of randomization techniques to analyze electric energy consumption in households—a randomly chosen sample group, including hundreds of thousands of people who are all clients of the same Italian company Eni gas e luce, was sent a document including a comparison of their energy consumption with that of other households, with positive messages targeted at those that were more effective.
In what ways did people grasp this data and accordingly change their behavior and energy consumption?
This is the doubt that lies at the core of the study carried out by the Italian group from the RFF CMCC European Institute on Economics and the Environment (EIEE), including Jacopo Bonan, Cristina Cattaneo, Giovanna d’Adda, and Massimo Tavoni.
The study findings describe how a change in the contents of the document sent to the sample group impacted their energy consumption. For instance, the less efficient clients identified using these documents that they were consuming higher energy when compared to other similar households, and that efficiency was a precious attribute.
These clients, with constant social norms, further went on to achieve the greatest decrease in energy consumption after receiving the document. By contrast, the document obtained by the more efficient households, apart from approval for having saved on energy, also showed that conforming to the behavior of other families would have related to an increase in their energy consumption.
Thus, the more efficient clients achieved a smaller decrease in energy use after reading the document, as the two social norms were opposite to each other. An elaborate analysis could differentiate and separate the effect of the particular contents of the document from that of the characteristics of separate clients, especially concerning initial consumption.
The findings illustrate a synergy between different kinds of social norms: people who achieved the highest decrease in their energy consumption were those who, from the data received, understood that they were utilizing more electric energy compared to their neighbors, and simultaneously learned that less energy consumption is a socially recognized value.
One more essential finding from the study, exemplified by the virtuous client, discloses the hidden risks of messages based on social norms and how they can turn out to be ineffective if they include contrasting messages.
Indeed, these clients realized that energy conservation is a treasured social norm but simultaneously identified that the behavior of their neighbors did not reflect this value. To make the virtuous clients achieve further decrease in their energy consumption, it was thus crucial to reinforce the message in favor of energy efficiency.
According to the authors, the study findings hold essential lessons for the realization of data campaigns with the aim of maximizing behavioral change. Philanthropy, tax evasion, or the use of water resources are areas where these could be employed effectively. In all these cases, the Italian group’s study has high scientific importance.
It is a novel study not just in its application of techniques, theories, and competencies of behavioral science to research on energy but also in its involvement with energy providers who took part actively in the research measures.
In the energy sector, both private and public policymakers are thus among the parties interested in gaining insights into how messages and data can contribute to change the behavior and consumption patterns of people.
This level of novelty and multidisciplinarity, which brings the experts in energy technology and behavioral science together, is one of the characteristics that characterize the RFF CMCC European Institute on Economics and the Environment (EIEE).
Fruit of the collaboration between the CMCC Foundation and the U.S.-based think tank RFF, this institution integrates different competencies in the study of environmental economics to promote lasting development.
Bonan, J., et al. (2020) The interaction of descriptive and injunctive social norms in promoting energy conservation. Nature Energy. doi.org/10.1038/s41560-020-00719-z.