We always like to think that as individuals we don’t succumb to “keeping up with the Joneses”. We embrace our differences from others and “own” them as our ours. However, in reality we’re always influenced by what people in our peer groups, our neighbourhoods and on our social media feeds are doing. And as it it turns out, we do some pretty strange things in social environments.

Among the most famous social psych studies is the Solomon Asch experiment. To measure conformity, or the amount one will yield to group pressure, Asch ran an eyesight test. In a group of eight participants, seven research assistants (unbeknownst to the eighth participant), and a single real participant were given two cards, one with a single line, and a second with three lines. They were asked to match up the single line on the first card with the corresponding matching line on the second card. An example is given above.

Sounds like an easy task right? It was. When asked to respond privately in writing, or publicly with no interference from others, everybody got the answer right. However, when asked to stand up and say their answer aloud to the group after the first seven respondents had already answered incorrectly, the 32% of real participants gave the wrong answer. Participants performed this task 18 times, with the assistants answering incorrectly 12 times, and over those 12 times, 75% of individuals conformed to the obviously incorrect answer at least once! Only 25% of people refused entirely to conform to something so objectively incorrect. The numbers can go up or down depending on some experimental variables, but one of the most impactful is how many people are seen siding on an issue before an individual has to participate. The more people on one side, the more likely to the individual is to conform.

Energy efficiency and water conservation actions are hard to see outside the home. One simple tactic to boost participation is to publicly identify participants so others can see who is participating, and more so, for the individuals to see when they are NOT participating. Social pressure and the “fear” of not doing the “right” thing can be a powerful motivator to get people to take action. Waste reduction programs use this tactic very successfully. To see an example of it, look at blue bin programs in Canada that StatsCan reported had a 97% participation rate in areas that had curbside recycling programs. Obviously there are other factors at play, but it is widely recognized that social norming, or the fact that your neighbours can see if your blue box or green bin is (or isn’t) out is a top reason for such high numbers.

In energy efficiency, OPower is driving the behaviour change trend with social norming. By making people aware of what their neighbours are doing and how households rate to similar households, they’re able to drive savings.

Going forward, it is important to publicly recognize individuals for their participation so people in their peer group who are not participating feel the social pressure to participate. The people who are participating have their good behaviour re-confirmed from time to time, encouraging them. This is when “Keeping up with the Joneses” is a good thing for us all.

03 Mar 2016