Promoting friendly competition to cut back on energy

The New York Times reports on a favorite nudge of ours from California: Giving people information about their energy consumption and how it compares with their neighbors’ in order to cut back on energy use – and printing smiley faces and frowning faces on customer’s bills to emphasize the message. By subtly shaming or applauding individuals, the nudge taps “into a time-honored American passion: keeping up with the neighbors,” the Times writes.

Interestingly (albeit perhaps not surprisingly), one positive development from this nudge is the encouragement of spontaneous, small-scale action by groups. As designed, the nudge is entirely focused on individuals or individual families. Each household receives a bill, providing information about its energy habits, plus the habits of the energy of an average household, or one especially green household. But by piquing curiosity about the behavior of others, groups are likely to spontaneously form to take advantage of the information they’ve been given.

Competition among homeowners is still rare, but is becoming more widespread. In Massachusetts, the BrainShift Foundation, a nonprofit that uses games to raise environmental awareness, recruited towns to compete in a reality series, called “Energy Smackdown,” which is shown on a local cable station.

At the start of this year’s season, 10 families from Cambridge, Medford and Arlington formed teams and competed against one another in conservation categories that included waste, heating fuel, electricity and food. Patty Nolan, 51, who lives in Cambridge with her husband and two children, agreed to participate because, she said, although family members thought of themselves as “environmentally conscious,” they knew they could be doing more.

Promoting friendly competition is fast becoming a recognized strategy for designing a nudge. Looking to the future, smart choice architects may be able to take this kind of individually delivered information, and use it to promote or strengthen broader social norms.

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2 Responses to “Promoting friendly competition to cut back on energy”

  1. Nick Grant Says:

    Just started reading Nudge and was particularly interested in tracking down details of the smiley face on utility bills story referenced here. I was hoping to find robust evidence to support a recommendation for project in the UK.

    However unless I have missed something, it seems from the NYT article that the smiley faces idea was dropped due to complaints and that the savings were only 2%. I’m not a statistician but question whether this is statistically significant, especially as any sort of intervention that lets people know they are being monitored might be expected to result in a change in behaviour.

    Would love to be directed to something more conclusive relating to changing peoples environmental behaviour through utility bill feedback.

    • Marcus Tay Guan Hock Says:

      Dear Nick,

      I think the NYT article mentioned that only the frowning faces were dropped. The smiley faces remained.

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