Your Energy Mind Tricks Won't Work On Me...

by Bradford Plumer | April 23, 2010

For some time now, a few electric utilities have been experimenting with a clever ploy to get their customers to save energy. The idea is simple: The power company just sends people reports showing how much electricity they're using compared with their neighbors. After Sacramento's municipal utility tried this last year, energy use dropped 2.8 percent. The reports really do seem to motivate people to switch off their lights, install CFLs, shut down their computers at night, or even take bigger steps like insulating their windows. Anything to keep up with the neighbors.

But it turns out there's a twist. Only some people try to compete with the folks next door. A new study by UCLA economists Dora Costa and Matthew Kahn has found that these programs mainly only work on Democrats, liberals, and environmentalists, who tend to lower their energy consumption in the quest to feel more virtuous than the neighbors. By contrast, many conservatives and Republicans actually increased their energy usage. Ray Fisman explains:

Why would some energy-conscious Republicans all of a sudden become power hogs? One explanation is that many conservatives don't believe that burning energy harms the planet, so when they learn that they're better than average, they become less vigilant about turning the lights off. That is, they're simply moving closer to what they now know is the norm (what psychologists call the boomerang effect).

Costa and Kahn also look for guidance from the patron saint of right-wing fundamentalists, Rush Limbaugh, who encouraged his listeners to turn on all their lights during Earth Hour. Costa and Kahn suggest that ardently right-wing electricity customers might respond to paternalistic nudges by burning more energy, just to thumb their noses at Big Brother.

Granted, Fisman argues that this doesn't mean these programs are doomed. Maybe all it means is that a conservation program that might work in, say, liberal San Francisco won't work down in Orange County. Psychology is tricky. Nudging people into saving energy isn't as straightforward as it might seem. And this reminds me to link to an old-but-important post by Dave Roberts about how, in the grand scheme of things to spend money on in order to reduce carbon emissions, funding research into behavioral science (and study's like the one by Costa and Kahn) may turn out to be one of the smarter investments around.

(Flickr photo credit: jeff lamb)

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