What this country needs is a good way to scare Mary Clarke of Greenbelt into running around her all-electric kitchen, flipping switches to "off."

Getting people to save electricity is a goal of the Department of Energy, where studies have recently found that fewer Americans believe there is an energy crisis now than believed it nine months ago. After taking part in one of dozens of studies on ways to get the Mary Clarkes of the country to act, she had a suggestion:

Why not install an indoor electric meter that clicks up the kilowwatts in dollars and cents as they rush by on their way to the air conditioner, she said, just the way a taxi meter puts a prices on the passing miles?

It happen, however, that the Department of Energy is already studying just such a device. In fact, behavioral researchers are studying anything they can think of that might translate the rhetoric of conservation into reality.

So far, the best answer sems to be feedback. "Letting people know they've succeeded can work in getting people to save energy up to about 10 per cent," said Jeffrey Milstein, Energy's director of marketing and educational research. The figure coincides with President Carter's national energy conservation goal, but nobody is suggesting that the nation is heading that way yet.

The feedback homeowners like Mary Clarke got in the Greenbelt study consisted of drawings of faces: smiling faces for every day that the household conserved energy and frowning faces every day it did not. A caption pointed out how much would have been saved or lost if all D.C. homes had used energy in the same way the Greenbelt homeowner did.

It worked. But when the feedback stopped, so did most of the conservation.

"All we really did was turn off the light bulbs," Clarke said. "It was a real game. . . we'd see the neighbors and say, 'Well, I did better than you did,' but now we only think about it occasionally. . .

"Oh, there's no reason we couldn't go out and read our own meter to see how we're doing, but we just don't," she went on. "Maybe if they put digits on the meters. . ."

Dr. Richard Winett of the nonprofit Institute for Behavioral Research (IBR) of Silver Spring, which conducted the five-month Greenbelt study, said it showed that even people who already use little electricity can find ways to cut down if they get feedback for doing so. Skeptics who don't believe in the energy crisis will do it too, he said.

"A monthly electricity bill is really useless," said Winett's colleague Dr. Michael Neal. "If you ask people how many kilowatts they're using most don't have the vaguest idea. Most people don't even know where their meter is. . . Even weekly feedback isn't enough. Daily is better, and it should be continuous if possible."

William Clarke is an aerospace engineer with a degree in heat transfer, and should know about energy saving if anyone should. The Clarkes' spacious town house with insulation, storm windows and central air conditioning was using 23.6 kilowatts a day when the study began last April, for a monthly bill of about $45. In midsummer, when bills for similar homes had gone up 20 per cent, the Clarkes had cut their energy use by 2 per cent.

"We liked to get those smiles," said Mary Clarke.

Similarly, Deloyce Rogers started out using 18 kilowatts a day in his small wooden town house that has no storm windows, one room air conditioner and little insulation, but two television sets, a big stereo and an electric kitchen. His family of three cut their energy use by 30 per cent, to 13 kilowatts a day at midsummer.

"Mostly we turned off the lights and went to bed earlier so we didn't watch so much TV," Rogers said. The color set flickered silently behind him as he talked, the sound turned down. "We're conscious of it now, I guess, but not as much as we should be. Then we were getting a sheet (of paper) every day and we didn't want to get too many of those frowns."

Like many people, the Rogers family is not convinced an energy crisis exists. "It's all politics, people trying to get rich," he said.

Pearl Rogers agreed. "People that can afford to pay the bills don't pay much attention to energy. We're doing all the saving and they're doing all the enjoyment," she said.

Energy's Milstein said various studies showed that one of every five American perceived an energy problem in the spring of 1974 just after the Arab oil embargo. One in four thought it was a problem one year ago, and the figure rose to a peak of two in every five persons last May, after President Carter declared "the moral equivalent of war" on energy waste.

Now the figure is one in three, Milstein said. "Less attention is being paid the issue by the media, the Congress, the administration. . . why should people feel there's a problem if the government doesn't act as though there is one?"

George and Joyce Krieger decided early on that there was a problem and worked on cutting their electricity use before the Greenbelt study ever began. With a large, detached, centrally air-conditioned home, they and their two children were using 14.3 kilowatts a day, less than the Rogers family, "phenomenally little," according to study director Winett.

during the summer their use went up to 17.5 kilowatts a day, but use in similar households actually doubled, Winett said. "If the air conditioning is on, the kids tend to stay in the house," Joyce Krieger said as an assortment of children climbed all over her. "We used it minimally in the summer. We've always done that but this time we had a daily reminder."

Researchers are currently trying to find ways of providing the daily reminders on a national scale. Much study proved that cash incentive payments were very effective in cutting energy use, "but that's unrealistic. We can't pay 70 million households to save energy," Milstein said.

Widespread media publicity on community use totals seemed to be effective during California's water shortage last year, but actual water cutoffs may have been the real prod, the researchers agreed. A Denver study is trying out saturation advertising to promote energy savings, but Milstein is not optimistic.

"Exhortation doesn't cut any ice with half the people in the country," he said. "Feedback is the second most effective next to cash payments, and it's related to the idea of saving money." With that in mind, energy's consumer motivation branch has equipped 70 Washington homes with energy monitors designed by a North Carolina home builder named R. B. Fitch.

The monitors operate much like Mary Clarke's suggested taxi meter-style electric digital meter, continually showing how much an hour's worth of energy will cost if the home-owner continues using it at the present rate. He turns on the television and the rate goes up. The study will last a year.

Further research will include commercial buildings and businesses and will consider whether different kinds of monitoring devices might better be provided by utilities or sold in stores, according to project manager Bruce Hutton of the consumer motivation unit.

"Feedback is a realistic strategy for everyone. They may not be hearing energy conservation yet in terms of world consciousness, but what they're all responsive to is saving money, and feedback is part of a way to do that."