Some water bills in California now come with simple bar graphs and “empathetic gauges." If you conserve more water than most neighbors in a billing period, and you get a happy, smiling raindrop. Do worse, and your water face is anxious and concerned. - 

To encourage people to consume less water and energy, conservationists often turn to taxes, rebates, or advertising.  But there may be a more cost-effective tool out there: peer pressure. A public utility in drought-stricken California is getting people to conserve water with some good old neighborly competition.

Giri Seshagiri is proud of his new low-flow showerhead, because it uses far less water than the old one. He installed it after his local utility, East Bay Mud, started sending him reports that compared his monthly water usage to that of his neighbors. He saw that some similar-sized households were using less water, so he began taking steps to cut back.

The water reports Seshagiri receives come with simple bar graphs and “empathetic gauges,” a fancy name for these emoticons shaped like big water droplets. Do better than most neighbors each billing period, and your water droplet is happy and smiling. Do worse, and your water face is anxious and concerned. At the bottom, the report has simple recommendations on how to conserve water and improve the mood of your emoticon.

Peter Yolles is the CEO of WaterSmart Software, the start-up that generates the reports. He says the easy-to-understand bar graphs and emoticons compel customers to change their behaviors. “In a way,” he says, “it's like looking at a mirror of yourself.” And that reflection can have powerful effects.

Yolles says households in Seshagiri's pilot program reduced water consumption by five percent last year. WaterSmart Software found that the primary reason customers cut back on their usage wasn’t conservation or monetary savings. It was the peer pressure. In the program, Yolles says, “eight out of ten are motivated because they want to keep up with the Joneses.”

The peer pressure has worked like a charm on Seshagiri. He now cleans all his dishes with the dishwasher, which the water report told him was more efficient than washing by hand. He is currently planning to replace his lawn with drought-resistant plants. And that, he says, should make his household more water efficient than most of his neighbors.

Peer pressure is becoming a common conservation tool. The company Opower creates similar comparison reports for people's energy use. As with water, Opower has noted that people use less energy when they are shown how their consumption compares to neighbors.

MIT professor Alex Pentland describes this kind of “keeping up with the Joneses” tactic “as a sort of passive social pressure.” He is studying more active forms of peer pressure that could have even more potential to change consumer behavior.

Pentland and his graduate students have run studies where participants get rewarded whenever their friends cut back on energy use. In some cases they found this kind of “buddy motivation system” up to sixteen times more efficient than individual incentives like taxes or rebates.

“The key thing,” Pentland says, “is you have to think of using the social fabric rather than the individual.” It is a new way of thinking, he says, and it is proving to be very effective.

Pentland says we are already seeing this kind of peer pressure have an effect on things like personal health. He thinks it has promise in areas like education or finance, but that would be a bit trickier. When it comes to those subjects, he says, people are more reluctant to share the necessary data.

But with water and energy usage, the public utilities already have the information. All companies have to do is show consumers how they stack up against their neighbors.