Columbia Business School Study Finds that Community Norms are a Powerful Predictor of Individual Behavior Towards Energy Conservation
NEW YORK – Policymakers face an uphill battle when they try to convince people to change their personal belief systems. Particularly in the domain of climate change, research continues to show that individuals’ personal beliefs about humans’ role in the planet’s warming are difficult to alter. However, to make meaningful changes toward climate conservation and stay within the UN’s goal of 1.5 °C collective changes in the behaviors of all individuals are required.
Rather than changing what people themselves believe, a new study from Columbia Business School and the University of Exeter may provide a path forward by focusing on what people believe that others believe. Researchers refer to perceptions of commonly-held beliefs as “second-order normative beliefs” and this new research shows that what people believe their community members care about plays a critical role in influencing one’s own beliefs. The study finds that when it comes to energy conservation, what people believe their community members care about is an important predictor of individual conservation behavior, above and beyond people’s own beliefs about energy conservation.
“The evidence shows that policymakers can’t simply ask people to reduce, reuse, and recycle. In fact, trying to reach people with subsidies for environmentally-friendly decision-making can backfire,” said Columbia Business School Professor Adam Galinsky. “Instead, the roadmap to improving perceptions of conservation starts with reminding individuals that their neighbors care about it. It’s important to shift the focus from trying to change what people believe to reinforcing what their friends believe.”
“Many of us generally agree that reducing energy consumption is needed to help the environment and save our planet — but we have found that to make it happen, we need to believe that others care about it too,” said Professor Oliver Hauser of the University of Exeter Business School. “People believe, rightly or wrongly, that a majority of those around them know what’s right—and they are afraid that they might be told off if they behave in a different way.”
The study, The Critical Role of Second-Order Normative Beliefs in Predicting Energy Conservation, published in Nature Human Behaviour, analyzed data from Opower, a company contracted by energy providers across the country to help them meet energy conservation requirements. The author team, led by Columbia Business School doctoral candidate Jon Jachimowicz, and including Columbia Business School’s Adam Galinsky, the Vikram S. Pandit Professor of Business, University of Exeter’s Professor Oliver Hauser, and researchers Julia O’Brien and Erin Sherman – selected Opower because the company deploys comparative information to reduce household energy usage by showing individuals how their energy consumption rate contrasts with their neighbors’ monthly energy bills. Providing this information has led to customers decreasing their energy consumption, saving more than $2 billion in energy usage.
The study focused on 211 independent, randomized controlled trials conducted in 27 states where Opower operates. The trials reached more than 16 million customers over seven years and yielded energy savings varying between 0.81 and 2.55 percent. The study’s authors then matched this energy use data with a survey of over 2,000 individuals in those same states on their first-order personal and second-order normative beliefs, as well as conducting an additional laboratory experiment.
Their findings include:
- A Good Neighbor: In states where respondents indicated that their neighbors cared about saving energy, providing information about the energy use of neighbors was much more effective in changing behavior.
- Combination of factors: Descriptive social norms, the idea that it’s important to carry out a certain social good because the majority of people in one’s community are already doing, cannot change behavior alone. Researchers found these descriptive social norms only matter when people think their neighbors personally care about the issue as well.
- Second-order beliefs can predict energy savings: A subsequent pre-registered experiment provided causal evidence for the role of second-order normative beliefs in predicting energy conservation above first-order personal beliefs.
“We found that when people believe their neighbors cared about energy conservation, they were more likely to subsequently save energy,” said Jon Jachimowicz of Columbia Business School. “This shows it is not only what most other people are doing that matters to us, but also whether we believe they care about this particular behavior.”
About the researchers
Adam Galinsky is currently the chair of the Management Division and the Vikram S. Pandit Professor of Business at the Columbia Business School. Read more.