What Works to Change People's Behavior For Sustainability?

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In a conversation today with Penn State's Sustainability Office Director, Erik Foley, I learned that he is beginning to explore some of the ideas developed by social psychologist and marketing consultant Robert Cialdini - especially his research on strategies for influencing people to change their attitudes and behaviors. (Cialdini on the science of persuasion

Wanting to learn more about Cialdini's work (he is a former faculty member at Arizona State) I found a New York Times article from last month about him. Cialdini is featured for his work with OPower, a company that studies consumer energy use. I found Cialdini's latest research to be somewhat surprising -- essentially, that basic social norming strategies can be used to lower consumer energy use -- and to keep it low. 

NY Times excerpt follows: [There were four types of signs, and each home received one randomly, every week, for a month. The first sign urged the homeowner to save energy for the environment's sake; the second said to do it for future generations' benefit. The third sign pointed to the cash savings that would come from conservation.

The fourth sign featured Cialdini's trick: "The majority of your neighbors are undertaking energy saving actions every day." (This was true -- Cialdini had surveyed the neighborhood and found that most residents were taking actions, however small.)

At the end of the month, Cialdini and his team read the homes' meters. They compared the four types of homes to other homes that had received no signs at all. The only sign that made a difference was the one about the neighbors.

"We think of ourselves as freestanding entities: 'Oh, I'm independent of the influence of those around me. I'm an individual,'" Cialdini says. "In fact, we are swept by that information in ways we don't recognize.]

It was important that the information that was provided was precisely true -- but this does show that social norming strategies can work for changing people's energy use consumption.

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