Downtown Oakland covered with solar roof panels

How contagious is energy efficient behaviour?

Greener behaviour by consumers will be essential for the Energy Transition. Some ideas on how Utilities could help spread this behaviour.

There was once a time that woolen socks marked people that were into nature, organic things and eco-friendly living. Those people were a minority. Nowadays it’s getting more hip to be green, and as a result even more people are becoming green.

But what could we do the help spread green behaviour? Even make it contagious. In this blogpost I’ll share some existing ideas from behavioural science.

Humans are hardwired to not respond to climate change

But before we start, let’s realize green behavior mostly isn’t human nature. Harvard psychology professor Dan Gilbert summarizes the reasons why we are hardwired not to respond to climate change:

  1. Climate change has no face, there is no bad guy. We’re naturally inclined to respond to a personifiable enemy, and there’s no beardy villain here.
  2. Climate change doesn’t move us. Despite the emotive images of polar bears, the climate crisis doesn’t “violate our moral sensibilities”.
  3. Climate change isn’t immediate. We’re not so good at thinking about the future. Long-term needs more often than not lose from short term desires.
  4. Climate change is slow motion. If change is gradual, we don’t really notice it, and we’re prepared to tolerate long-term change that we’d never accept if it happened fast.
Dan Gilbert at PopTech on Why we haven’t rallied our collective power to solve global warning?

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Humans are hardwired to copy behavior and follow the herd

So, humans are not hardwired to act on climate change. But they do act on lots of other things. Sometimes it seems that some behavior is even contagious, it spreads to more and more people.

Why does everyone want an iPhone or the latest handbag of Louis Vuitton? It would be great if Utilities could learn from these very successful companies how to make their product and services go viral.

Contagion is actually studied by many behavioral scientists and jonah a. berger has written a very insightful book about it; Contagius: Why Things Catch On. He developed a framework which product developers can use to make it more likely that whatever they launch will get adopted by a large number of consumers.

Humans are hardwired for acronyms

In the book Jonah describes a framework that goes by the name STEPPS. A really practical framework that helps the discussion at hand.

Next to the book, Jonah has developed a handy workbook. Below is taken from this workbook and the examples are my own. So what is needed for a product or service to catch on, to go viral or to become contagious?

  1. Social Currency

Status by association. People like to look smart, funny, and in-the-know, so they talk about things that help them portray a positive image of themselves. People want things that make them look good rather than bad.

Public: Prius as status symbol for the affluent who are in-the-know.

2. Triggers

People talk about things that are top-of-mind. Using subtle reminders to help them think about your idea will make them more likely to share.

3. Emotion

The Never Hungry Caterpillar, which hugs your TV cord, writhes when the set is switched to standby (thus using energy) instead of disconnected.

When we care, we share. High arousal emotions — like excitement, anger, and awe — fire people up. This activation, in turn, drives them to share.

4. Public

Built to show, built to grow. People often imitate others. But you can’t imitate what you can’t observe. Making behavior more public enables social influence.

Downtown Oakland covered with solar roof panels publicly visible to all.

5. Practical

News you can use. People share things to help others, whether it is advice on saving time, saving money, or making them healthier.

6. Story

Stories are like Trojan Horses: Information travels under the guise of idle chatter. People are more likely to share a memorable story than a list of technical facts and features about a product.

Tesla doesn’t use traditional marketing, but storytelling to have consumers lining up for the launch of their newest model.

These were some suggestions. Would love to know how you think we could create more contagious energy products and services.

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