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Collective Action Feedback Interface

City of Mountain View Energy Saving Program
Does framing efforts to save energy as part of a communal goal–"We're doing this together!"–get people to use less energy than stating a fact about how much other people have reduced use? Does either pitch achieve more than just presenting energy savings tips?
City of Mountain View Energy Saving Program

City of Mountain View energy-saving device website large

The opportunity to participate in a collective endeavor has been shown to be a powerful source of motivation, such as in academic achievement, though it has not been tested with environmental behaviors. A related approach—descriptive norms—has been shown to be effective in reducing energy consumption, such as reusing hotel towels. The two studies in this project, one on energy and one on water use, separated messages about communal effort from descriptive norms to determine which is more effective. In the energy study, researchers simultaneously tested whether providing several energy-saving tips on a particular topic, such as lighting, computers or heating, is more effective than mixing various energy-saving suggestions.

Among the findings:

  • When energy-saving tips were organized thematically, the collective-action frame led to significantly greater reductions than descriptive norms or the thematic recommendations alone.
  • Paradoxically, when tips were not organized, consumers receiving only the energy-saving suggestions reduced their energy use significantly more than those who also received the social togetherness message or descriptive norms. Still, providing thematic tips with the collective-action message was the most potent combination.
  • In the water study, households in the social togetherness condition used more water than those in the norm conditions, while the control group used the least water. One possible explanation is that the more affluent residents in the water study, relative to the energy study, were put off by the “We’re in this together” message.

More than 800 residences in Mountain View, Calif. signed up for the energy study. They received feedback about their energy consumption, energy saving recommendations and messages in emails sent every other week, and they could also access this information through a website. For the water study, all Hillsborough, Calif. Households received paper inserts with their monthly water bills for six months.

Publications and Presentations

Home Energy Savings: The Role of Feedback and a Sense of Togetherness
Conference of Stanford University Energy & Environment Affiliates Program
Sparkman, G., Clark, J., Schmidt, S., Schmidt, L. & Walton, G. (2013)

The Role of Togetherness in descriptive norm effects in Home Energy Savings
Manuscript in preparation
Sparkman, G., Clark, J., Paunesku, D., Schmidt, S., Schmidt, L. & Walton, G. (2013).

Future Work

Research on the effects of norms will focus on understanding when norms, particularly social norms invoking togetherness, are successful in motivating behavioral change and when they are likely to cause negative reactions for intervention participants.