How Social Norms Messaging Reduced Energy Usage by up to 1.72 kWh/Day
As early as the 1970s, behavioral research has shown that social norms encourage behavior and influence it significantly. However, many of these studies began to show that social norm marketing campaigns that used descriptive norms had the potential to increase the undesirable behaviors they sought to reduce. This research team sought to integrate both descriptive and injunctive norms into their messaging to test this behavioral “boomerang effect” in the context of reducing energy usage. To do so, they measured the energy usage of 290 households multiple times over a few weeks, with half in the descriptive-norm-only condition and the other half in the descriptive-plus-injunctive-norm condition. In the descriptive-only condition, homes that were initially below the average consumed more energy and those who were above average consumed less. In the descriptive-plus-injunctive-condition, homes with below-average energy usage maintained usage levels, and homes with above-average usage reduced their consumption.
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Rating: 3/5 (Significant effects; easy implementation; no control group; no demographic or sociological information given)
How Messaging Types Affect Energy Usage
|Descriptive-plus-injunctive message sent to above-average energy households||Reduction in energy usage of 1.72 kWh/day|
|Descriptive-only message sent to above-average energy households||Reduction in energy usage of 1.22 kWh/day|
|Descriptive-plus-injunctive message sent to below-average energy households||Rate of usage maintained (reduction of 0.24 kWh/day)|
|Descriptive-only message sent to below-average energy households||Increase in energy usage of 0.89kWh/day|
Injunctive norm: How one “ought to” feel or react to a situation.
Descriptive norm: How people actually feel or react to a situation.
Boomerang Effect: When an attempt to influence a recipient towards a certain behavior results in them adopting the opposite behavior.
In the past few decades, research on social norms has been encouraging, as a surprising number of articles have shown that social norms significantly alter behaviors. As such, social norms marketing campaigns have captured the attention of organizations that want to capitalize upon two consistent findings:
1. The “majority of individuals overestimate the prevalence of many undesirable behaviors… in peers”
2. Individuals use their perceptions of peer norms as a standard against which to compare their own behaviors.”1
As of 2002, nearly half of the 746 U.S. universities surveyed by the Harvard School of Public Health used these social norms to combat binge drinking.1
Despite these positive results, social norm campaigns can have mixed results. Some studies found that using social norms increases undesirable behavior, as normative messages make people compare themselves to the normative behavior and deviate from it. This describes, in essence, the boomerang effect. According to the focus theory of normative conduct, the injunctive norm is a second norm that might remedy this since it refers to perceptions of what’s acceptable within a culture. (Descriptive norms, on the other hand, refer to what is commonly done.) The research team thus decided to investigate whether the injunctive norm influences how much energy people use over ten weeks.
Participant selection and baseline establishment
Choosing from three census-block groups, researchers identified participants in 290 households in San Marcos, CA. Importantly, all participants had visible energy meters. Before any interventions occurred, trained research assistants measured these electricity meters twice during a two-week period. Comparing the two readings, investigators established a baseline usage measure for each household.
Gathering data points
After gathering these baseline readings, households were randomly assigned to either the descriptive-norm-only condition or the descriptive-plus-injunctive-information condition. The researchers then used the baseline readings to create descriptive normative feedback and establish whether each household was above or below the mean energy usage. After the third reading, which occurred two weeks later, researchers left notes on the door of each home. The notes detailed energy usage compared to the baseline.
One week following this third reading, researchers took a fourth reading and gave out a second note. This note contained descriptive normative feedback about the energy expenditure between the second baseline reading and the distribution laid out on the first note. Research assistants took a fourth reading while passing out the second note, and a final reading three weeks later.
What’s in the messages?
The investigative team left two messages in total over this period. Each note contained:
- How much energy the household had used since the last reading
- How much energy a household in their neighborhood uses on average during this time period (Descriptive normative information)
- Ideas for how to reduce energy consumption
Both conditions received messages with this information, however the descriptive + injunctive information condition also received a positively or negatively valenced emoji (a smiley or frowny face) depending on whether they were above or below the mean, respectively.
The MINDSPACE framework
Thus far, we have seen that norms, messages, and emotional associations have been used to enact behavioral change. Formalizing this, the researchers used the MINDSPACE Framework, a behavioral science framework designed to list the nine factors that most influence our actions. The MINDSPACE acronym stands for:
- Messenger - Behavior is influenced by who is conveying the message.
- Incentives - Incentives, for example “buy one get one free,” have been shown to induce behavior.
- Norms - What others do can influence how we react in the same situations.
- Defaults - We typically resort to the pre-set option, such as plastic grocery bags instead of paper.
- Salience - Novel or noticeable things, such as a smiley face on a door hanger, draws our attention.
- Priming - Subconscious cues, even such things as color or temperature, can effect the decisions we make.
- Affect - Our emotions have a significant influence on our behavior.
- Commitments - Generally, we want to keep our promises and reciprocate what’s been done to us.
- Ego - We try to behave in ways that improve how we see ourselves.2
Results and Application
For those above average in energy usage, their weekly rate went down in both conditions. In the short term, the energy usage of those in the descriptive condition went down by 1.22 Kwh/hr. In the long-term, energy usage remained below what it had been initially (down 1.03 kWh/hr). However, a more significant decrease was measured in the group that received the descriptive and injunctive message. There was a 1.72 kWh/hr reduction in the short term, which remained significant in the long term at 1.23 kWh/hr.
Results differed for those below the average energy usage level. In both the short- and long-term, energy usage of the households who received the descriptive and injunctive message remained about the same throughout (0.24 increase and 0.1 increase respectively). However, families who received the descriptive message signficantly increased their usage. In the short-term, they consumed 0.89 kWh/hr more. In the long-term, they used even more than that, tallying at a significant 0.98 kWh/hr. These findings, though initially surprising, support the previous research that stated that descriptive norms can produce the boomerang effect. Moreover, results from the injunctive-plus-descriptive message groups “illustrat[e] the reconstructive power of normative information when an injunctive element is added to the descriptive normative feedback.”1
|Education||In settings where study time is measured (say, something like Quizlet or practice quizzes on Blackboard), descriptive-plus-injunctive messages could encourage struggling students to practice more.|
|Financial Services||A similar type messaging could be applied to people with specific investment or savings goals, comparing their behavior to people with similar reported incomes.|
|Technology||Given social media can be addictive, a descriptive-plus-injunctive message could help people spend less time on apps and more time working towards their goals.|
- Less energy expenditure benefits everyone and the environment
- No demographic or sociological information was given, so it’s hard to draw broader conclusions
- There was no control group from which to draw comparisons
|Does the intervention demonstrably improve the lives of those affected by it?||
|It allows people to save money and use less energy, which has positive impacts on wellbeing and the environment|
|Does the intervention respect the privacy (including the privacy of identity) of those it affects?||
|No identifying information was shared|
|Does the intervention have a plan to monitor the safety, effectiveness, and validity of the intervention?||
Room for Improvement
|Safety was never threatened. However, since there’s no control group, it’s more difficult to measure the effectiveness and validity of the intervention.|
|Does the intervention abide by a reasonable degree of consent?||
|Yes, households were allowed to opt out at any time.|
|Does the intervention respect the ability of those it affects to make their own decisions?||
|Yes, households have total freedom to act as they wish.|
|Does the intervention increase the number of choices available to those it affects?||
Insufficient Information/Not Applicable
|The number of choices available hasn’t increased or decreased.|
|Does the intervention acknowledge the perspectives, interests, and preferences of everyone it affects, including traditionally marginalized groups?||
Insufficient Information/Not Applicable
|No demographic or sociological information about the chosen neighborhood is shared, so we don’t know if any marginalized groups were included.|
|Are the participants diverse?||
Insufficient Information/Not Applicable
|Not enough information.|
|Does the intervention help ensure a just, equitable distribution of welfare?||
Room for Improvement
|By encouraging less energy use, the intervention helps ensure that others have access to energy, but does so indirectly.|
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- Schultz, P. W., Nolan, J. M., Cialdini, R. B., Goldstein, N. J., & Griskevicius, V. (2007). The constructive, destructive, and reconstructive power of social norms. Psychological Science, 18(5), 429–434. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9280.2007.01917.x
- MINDSPACE Framework. The Decision Lab. (2021, October 1). Retrieved January 17, 2022, from https://thedecisionlab.com/reference-guide/neuroscience/mindspace-framework/#:~:text=MINDSPACE%3A%20A%20mnemonic%20for%20the,affect%2C%20commitments%2C%20and%20ego.