Using Social Proof to Reduce Energy Consumption

“Three decades ago, Robert Cialdini was one of the first social psychologists to study what motivates people to take care of the environment…”    
{ Bonnie Tsui, “Greening with Envy,” The Atlantic, July 1, 2009 }

Social Proof says that we learn how to act by watching the behavior of others.

Robert Cialdini is the chief scientist at Opower (formerly branded as “Positive Energy”). They created software that assesses energy usage by neighborhood and then sends the results to consumers on behalf of their local utility.

In 2008, Positive Energy piloted the program. People who received personalized “compared with your neighbors” data on their electric bill statements reduced their energy usage by more than 2% over the course of a year. With 35,000 homes in the pilot program, it’s the equivalent of taking 700 homes off the grid.

In our Influence Without Authority class, I’ve often wondered aloud to the class how powerful this would be if done in a city like Chicago, where there are 1 million households.

Then, this arrived at my home this week:


A couple of observations:

First, looking at the bar chart at the top, it would seem that we must have a nuclear reactor connected to one of our electrical outlets—How else is our usage so high? Actually, they are comparing our 4000 square foot home to “neighbors in apartments and condos.”

The more accurate measure is the bar chart on the bottom. It shows that our energy usage year-over-year is down 16%. (My August notice indicated a 21% year-over-year reduction.) This news is further reinforced by the figure on the right having a smiley face!  Yay for me!

Time will tell how effective this strategy is. The first few years using this approach has been positive enough to warrant expansion of it. And the reasoning is sound.  Social proof works so well in part because it operates at a level outside our general consciousness. It is, in a sense, instinctive. Or, as Cialdini explains, “On some base level, it’s survival recognition...” 

Social Proof is one very useful tool—among many others—we teach in our Influence Without Authority course. 

Influence is everywhere. I find it fascinating and useful to notice influence in the everyday.  Do you notice influence around you?  I’d love to hear.