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Kai Ryssdal: Habits can be hard to change, especially later in life. But when it comes to fixing our bad environmental habits, it might be time to go back to high school.
There's a growing body of research that shows peer pressure may be the most effective way to get people to behave in a more eco-friendly manner. That's opposed, of course, to the classic do-gooder appeals that are so common in the environmental movement. From the Marketplace Sustainability Desk Sarah Gardner reports.
Noah Goldstein has a Ph.D. in social psychology. He teaches at the prestigious Anderson School of Management at UCLA and tosses around esoteric terms like "injunctive norm." But today he's talking hotel towels.
Noah Goldstein: There are these signs in hotels that ask people to reuse their towels to help save the environment.
That's the standard environmental appeal. The Ph.D.s thought they could do better.
Goldstein: A second one that we created specifically informed guests that the majority of others did reuse their towels sometime during their stay.
The result of that message? Twenty-six percent more recycling. And when Goldstein and his colleagues tweaked the sign further to say the majority of guests in that particular room had re-used their dirty towels, recycling improved 33 percent. Goldstein says it's an adaptive, herd-like response.
Goldstein: If you go to a cafeteria and you've never been there before and nobody is touching the ham and everybody is touching the turkey, it's probably effective for you to go for the turkey sandwich instead of the ham.
Now some energy businesses are starting to apply the research on peer influence. Alex Laskey heads Positive Energy, a company that helps utilities cut their customers' energy use. He's read the latest studies and he's a believer.
Alex Laskey: Despite the fact that your mother and my mother told us countless times that it doesn't matter what the neighbors do -- "I set the rules in this house" -- it turns out at the end of the day, we are all driven by our perceptions of what the neighbors are doing.
One of Laskey's clients is Puget Sound Energy, a utility in suburban Seattle.
Andy Wappler: We know today that if our customers in western Washington did pretty attainable energy efficiency measures -- going to CFL's, doing some upgrades around the house -- we wouldn't have to build two 250-megawatt gas-fired power plants.
That's PSE's Andy Wappler. He says the utility just started a pilot program: It's telling 40,000 of its customers how much energy they use compared to neighbors in similar-sized houses. The initial response? Well, let's just say the customer calls were charged.
Kristy Nice: I have to say they were 100 percent negative. They were people that were offended by them and felt that it was an invasion of privacy and how dare we suggest they should be doing better.
That's PSE employee Kristy Nice. She took hundreds of calls in the first few days. Still, only 19 of those over-users asked to opt out of the pilot program. The results of the utility's peer pressure project aren't in yet. But the success of a similar academic experiment in Southern California gives the utility confidence.
Enter the home of PSE customer John Gegas.
John Gegas: In the kitchen there's probably eight bulbs there, there's four in here.
Gegas actually found out he's actually out-saving his neighbors.
Gegas: My reaction was good. My other reaction was I can do better.
Gegas may not know it, but the tendency for good performers like him is to backslide when they find out they're better than average. Behavioral scientists call this moving to the "magnetic middle." That's why PSE plastered two smiley faces next to Gegas' positive score. The research suggests that kind of kindergarten approval can prevent behavioral relapse. So what symbol do the energy hogs get?
Wappler: We don't give 'em frowns. Nobody wants a frown.
That's apparently another social theory PSE subscribes to. At some point, the customer's always right.
In King County, Washington, I'm Sarah Gardner for Marketplace.