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Peer Pressure Best Motivator When It Comes To Energy Saving

Armen Hareyan's picture

When it comes to persuading people to conserve energy, the message 'everybody else is doing it' works better than trying to appeal to people's sense of social responsibility, desire to save money or even to their hope of safeguarding the earth for future generations.

In addition, it's important to understand the different ways ambivalent and unambivalent people process information.

Those were among the messages delivered today by two psychologists who testified before the House Science and Technology subcommittee on research and science education regarding the contribution of the social sciences to the nation's energy challenge.

Robert B. Cialdini, PhD, regents' professor of psychology and marketing at Arizona State University, referred to several studies he has conducted in environmental contexts (i.e., home energy conservation, household recycling and hotel conservation efforts). In one study, Cialdini and a colleague conducted a survey to learn how the perception of what most people do in a situation can influence energy conservation decisions.

'Our survey of nearly 2,500 Californians showed that those who thought their neighbors were conserving were more likely to conserve themselves,' Cialdini said in written testimony.'

In a follow-up, the researchers placed door hangers on the doors of San Diego-area residents once a week for a month. The hangers carried one of four messages, informing residents that 1, they could save money by conserving energy; 2, they could save the earth's resources by conserving energy; 3, they could be socially responsible citizens by conserving energy, or 4, the majority of their neighbors tried regularly to conserve energy. They also included a control group of residents whose door hanger simply urged energy conservation but with no rationale.

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'Even though our prior survey indicated that residents felt that they would be least influenced by information regarding their neighbors' energy usage, this was the only type of door hanger information that led to significantly decreased energy consumption, almost two kilowatt hours per day,' he said.

In another study, Cialdini looked at how guests in an upscale Phoenix-area hotel reacted to message cards asking them to reuse their towels. He and his colleagues put one of four different cards in the guestrooms. One said, 'Help save the environment;' another said, 'Help save resources for future generations;' a third said, 'Partner with us to save the environment;' and the last said, 'Join your fellow citizens in helping to save the environment.' The fourth one was followed by information that the majority of hotel guests do reuse their towels when asked.

'The outcome? Compared to the first three messages, the final (social norm) message increased towel reusage by an average of 34 percent,' he said. 'This points out the need to call on social scientific research in a systematic fashion to help advance environmental policy.'

Duane T. Wegener, PhD, professor of psychological sciences at Purdue University, presented information he has gleaned as an initiative leader for the school's center on Social, Economic and Political Aspects of Energy Use and Policy.'

'When seeking to influence the use of energy by consumers or the purchase of energy-efficient products, it would be important not only to create attitudes favorable toward those behaviors but to create attitudes strong enough to influence those behaviors,' Wegener testified. One way to create these strong attitudes is to get people to think carefully about attitude-related information.

Wegener and his colleagues have studied how mixed feelings influence attitudes toward nuclear power and the taxing of junk food. When people are ambivalent, they think a lot about information that agrees with their existing attitudes, but they avoid thinking about information with which they disagree. This is because thinking about agreeable information can remove the ambivalence, but thinking about disagreeable information (information inconsistent with one's attitude) can increase ambivalence.

Attitude change, Wegener said, 'provides one of the best mechanisms for influencing energy-use behavior.' Wegener also stressed the need for more federal funding for basic social psychological research.

'Unfortunately, despite the relative efficiency of social science research, there is much less federal funding available to fund this research (at least within social psychology) than there used to be,' he said. 'It is extremely important to find a new home for federal funding of basic research in social psychology in general and of research in attitude change in particular.'