This is not surprising to Paul Atchley, a psychology professor at the University of Kansas, who has spent the past five years developing ways to get college students and the general public to stop texting while driving.
Though his research may seem a long way from reducing home energy use, both involve changing behavior and the solution lies in understanding how we make decisions.
Although we like to think we are rational beings, our emotions underlie every decision we make, Atchley said. All incoming “data” to our brains are “processed” in our emotional nerve center before they move on to our “executive function” in the frontal cortex. Before you consciously begin to grapple with energy and equipment costs, potential energy savings and everything else related to home energy, your emotions have already weighed in.
We’re also very social beings, Atchley said. We want to know what others in our peer group are doing, and our perception of their behavior exerts a heavy influence on how we behave and the decisions we make.
Although we like to think that our adolescent desire to be like the “cool” kids fades with adulthood, Atchley said it continues throughout our lives. Though you may regard yourself as an independent thinker, the opinion of your peer group remains remarkably powerful.
Just how powerful was demonstrated in a very famous psychology experiment that focused on home energy use, Atchley said.
The research team, led by two psychologists, Robert Cialdini of Arizona State University and Wesley Schultz of California State University, San Marcos, hung a series of five door hangers with energy-saving messages on several hundred homes in a San Diego suburb in 2004. Three of the five door hangers displayed appeals to save energy that are commonly offered: Protect the environment, benefit society and save money. The fourth door hanger stated that summer is here and it’s a time to save energy. The fifth message simply said that the majority of your neighbors are saving energy. The researchers measured the effectiveness of the messages by obtaining meter readings before and after the door hangers were distributed. They found that the first four had minimal effect. But the fifth, which mentioned the neighbors, produced a significant, 10 percent drop in home energy usage, Schultz said.
Based in part on these findings that were corroborated in additional research, Cialdini helped found Arlington-based OPower, a firm that is currently working with almost 80 utilities in the United States and five other countries, crunching data from their service areas to compare the energy use of each residential customer with that of 100 others in similarly sized nearby houses or apartments. The comparison is included with each customer’s monthly bill; many customers can also access the information more frequently online. Overall, OPower’s work has helped residential customers to reduce their home energy use by 1.5 to 3.5 percent, OPower executive Carly Llewellyn said. In the Washington area, OPower works with Pepco.