Energy Use: the Social Forces at Play

 By: Emma O’Neil

U.S. Reports have highlighted the devastating effects of climate change on the U.S. economy, communities, water, tourism, infrastructure, agriculture, and health.  Based on the fourth national climate assessment, rising temperatures are taking a toll on regional economies and industries dependent on natural resources.  Climate change is expected to impact import and export prices and businesses with overseas operations and supply chains.  With the continued expansion of emissions, losses in some economic sectors are projected to reach hundreds of billions of dollars by the end of this century, not to mention all the damage to human health, ecosystems, and global stability (1).  It is evident that a significant reduction in energy consumption is necessary to meet temperature thresholds. 

            Considering this imperative, research in the social sciences has revealed a way of aiding consumers in working towards this goal.  That is, whether you think your neighbors care about energy conservation is a significant source of motivation for reducing energy consumption.  This influence has been illustrated to actually play a greater role in consumer actions than the role of one’s personal beliefs about climate change (2).

            Opower is one utility provider with a flagship product called the Home Energy Report (HER).  It allows residential energy customers to see not only their energy use but also the energy use of their neighbors (3).  Specifically, it consists of three graphs, illustrating how much energy the customer is consuming, how much energy efficient neighbors are consuming, and how much energy all neighbors consume.  With the implementation of the intervention in different regions and with new utility companies, the provider conducts randomized controlled trials to better understand the effect of HER on energy customers.  However, the average reduction in energy usage for households with HER varies significantly (4). 

            In effect, HER displays a norm, a social means of pressure for individual energy consumption.  The product follows from many social science research studies that have shown that people seek to emulate their peers.  Yet, this social motivation undoubtedly varies.  Researchers including Jon M. Jachimowicz and Oliver Hauser have examined this variation and found that what matters more than individual attitudes is whether we believe our own neighbors understand the reduction of energy use as an important means of limiting environmental destruction.  HER has a greater influence on individual energy use when one believes that his or her neighbors actually care about saving energy in order to save the environment (5).

            Furthermore, our understanding of why others act the way they do drives our behavior just as much, if not more, than personal beliefs.  The implications of this behavioral research are immense, as we may now understand a key to change in human behavior.  We must not only focus on individual beliefs but also gain insight into what people think those around them believe.  As social creatures, we want to know how those around us think, a conclusion of behavioral science that is already sparking new experimental practices in the energy sector and inspiring new approaches to address national energy consumption