Editorial — 22 March 2017

It was interesting timing that Kathy Zilkalns’ letter should arrive this week on Hydro One’s quizzical Home Energy Dashboard strategy to get people to consider home energy conservation. Perhaps you’ve seen something in the mail that compares your energy consumption to your neighbour, maybe it suggests that others are taking steps you have not?

Turns out there’s a very good reason why Hydro One wants to compare you to your neighbours. You’re probably not going to like it.

Somewhere in the 20-hour drive between here and the Rocky Mountains over the past week I had the good fortune to listen to an episode of the Freakonomics Radio Podcast titled Riding the Herd Mentality in which they delve into the research of Dr. Robert Cialdini on the power of social norms to influence ‘pro-social’ behaviour.

Cialdini and his colleagues conducted an interesting experiment in San Diego where they tracked the energy usage of households after delivering one of four different types of persuasive conservation messaging to the households in the study. The messaging basically broke down like this:

1. Do this to save money;

2. Do this help save resources;

3. Do this to help future generations;

4. Do this because most of your neighbours are already doing it.

When Cialdini’s team looked at the energy consumption data at the end of the study, they were surprised to find the only messaging that had any effect whatsoever was the suggestion that one’s neighbours had already taken steps to conserve energy.

“There is one secret to the universe that we seem to under-recognize,” said Cialdini to Freakonomics Radio. “It is that what those around us are doing powerfully influences what we choose to do next — even though we tend to think of ourselves as free-standing entities, immune to the blandishments of information and evidence from those around us.”

Moreover, Cialdini says the study points to a real blind spot in the human psyche around what we’re prepared to admit to ourselves or others will influence our behaviour. When the study interviewed households and asked what level of influence each of the four suggestions would have on their behaviour, ‘neighbourly influence’ ranked dead last while being the only suggestion that seemed to actually work.

Cialdini’s findings on social norms and humans instinct to ‘flock’ are being embraced by utility companies all over North America as a new approach to the conservation hard-sell.

Telling a person a certain thing is normal, then informing them they fall outside those parameters is harnessing the power of shame (albeit low-level) to achieve a larger goal of shaping society to your ends.

Shame is an important part of a healthy society. It keeps us in line and guides our behaviour where our laws fail us. It’s a big part of our public health, justice, and social systems.

Whether or not a company like Hydro One, as shameless an entity as I’ve ever seen, should be trying to exploit yet another one of our collective ‘back doors’…

Well, that’s a question we should all ask ourselves before we do them any more favours.

— Chris Marchand

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MichaelChristianson

(1) Reader Comment

  1. Like this

    From day 1 I have despised these comparison reports for all the reasons that you outline in this article. It s manipulation pure and simple.

    I pay my carbon tax, I no longer have to feel guilty about the amount of power I use. Now quit bugging me and take care of the environment with the money I send you, like you said you would.

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