The Latest Nudge Toward Conservation: Telling People You’re Watching Them

CREDIT: Shutterstock

Eyes Shades Shutterstock

CREDIT: Shutterstock

If you want people to conserve energy, just tell them that you’re watching their consumption. At least, that’s the major takeaway from a new study from Carnegie Mellon University. Researchers there tested how household energy consumption changes when people know they’re being monitored, and found that accountability actually motivates people to conserve more.

To conduct the experiment, researches monitored one control group over the course of a month to see how much energy the households used. Then, they repeatedly sent postcards to another group of houses, informing (and later reminding) the inhabitants there that their energy consumption was being monitored. The postcards in no way urged action, but simply said participants had “been selected to be part of a one-month study of how much electricity you use in your home…. No action is needed on your part.” However, it made a significant impact in how much energy the group used:

Residential consumers who received weekly postcards informing them that they were in a study reduced their monthly use by 2.7%—an amount greater than the annual conservation goal currently mandated by any state. A follow-up survey found that participants who reported having responded more to the study also reported greater awareness of their electricity consumption and saw themselves as already doing more than their neighbor.

The people who cut electricity consumption reported doing relatively simple things — turning off the lights, turning off computers and televisions, unplugging appliances that weren’t in use, or changing or turning off their thermostat — to achieve a rather significant impact on consumption. Sadly, the researchers also found that conservation “vanished when the intervention ended.”

This sort of influence-through-observation is known as the Hawthorne Effect, and this study simply confirms what researchers have suspected could be a useful tool in helping to promote conservation. In fact, this study is far from the first experiment in trying to subtly nudge people toward conservation. And there’s evidence we’d do well to enshrine such nudges into policy.

In a book by that name, Nudge authors Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein advocate for “liberal paternalism,” steering people toward a particular decision by some form of feedback or pressure. One example they talk about, which echoes the new Carnegie Mellon study, looks at energy consumers in Sacramento, California. Instead of getting a simple energy bill, the residents are told how their consumption compares to their neighbors’. They’re also given smiley faces or frowny faces on their bill, to let them know how that consumption measures up:

Sacramento energy consumption boston


Another experiment, in Brighton, England, paints the daily energy consumption of Tidy Street residents on the asphalt — perhaps the most public form of public shaming:


CREDIT: Flickr user noraomurchu

Both experiments — Tidy Street and the Sacramento utility bill — have been successful in cutting back energy consumption. But neither is large scale enough to have an appreciable environmental impact.

But for residents of the U.S., that could change. As a part of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the government dedicated money to installing 15.5 million “smart meters” in the U.S. These meters are able to better monitor energy consumption and cost, and in the future they’ll be able to provide greater feedback to consumers on their energy use. They’ll allow residents to align their consumption to when it’s most efficient to use electricity and demand is lowest, while simultaneously helping utility companies keep up with demand. Since studies show that consumers aren’t quite sure how to conserve energy, this data feedback could nudge people toward more efficient and reduced consumption.

(HT: Grist)