Why and how it works
Two of the greatest barriers stopping people to embrace a more sustainable lifestyle is that they rarely feel they get something back for doing so and that it is extremely hard to see improvements in the environment due to individual actions. Both barriers are related to the lack of feedback, which in turn is essential to make people feel motivated to adopt and sticking with a new behaviour. In comparison making changes in our diets and starting to exercise generally pays off quite rapidly. The example below illustrates how something as simple as a happy face can motivate more people to act green.
The extent to which people experience positive feedback is strongly related to social norms. If having and driving a car is considered to be the norm in a community, trying to change this behaviour by giving people feedback can be outweighed by losses in social status and appreciation from the community and family members.
Recommendations for implementation
The fact that something as simple as a happy face can act as a strong motivation for people to uphold a green behaviour opens up for many simple and relatively cheap activities that can be carried out, both in small and large scale and in many different settings. Furthermore, providing feedback does not only involve rewards. It can also be information that helps people to grasp the effect of their individual and collective choices. The One Tonne Life -project carried out in Sweden during 2012 is a concrete example of how to give such feedback to a single family. The project has inspired a municipal real state company in the city of Uppsala, Sweden, to develop a large-scale project called Klimatsmart together with one of the biggest grocery stores in Sweden.
Example: Using a happy face to encourage low energy consumption
In a series of studies about the impact of social norms carried out by American psychologist Robert Cialdini and colleagues, one involved testing people’s energy consumption can be affected by information about how their neighbours perform. The experiments showed that when people get detailed information about how they perform compared to their neighbourhood people tend to adjust, also when they have the lowest energy consumption. Cialdini and his crew wanted to see whether giving people positive feedback could eliminate this negative effect.
In 2005 several hundred households in the City of San Marcos in the US were monitored for four weeks during which they received two door hangers delivered one week apart. Each hanger displayed information about how much energy, in kWh/day, the household had used in the previous week, information about the average energy consumption in the neighbourhood during the same period and some suggestions of how to reduce their energy use. In the first trial, all households were given the same signs. In the second trial the households were divided in four groups. Half of the households with lower than average energy use received a hanger with a happy face. Similarly, half of those with the highest energy consumption got a sad face on their second hanger.
Three weeks after receiving the second door hanger, the households with the lowest energy consumption who did not receive a happy face had increased their energy use with ten per cent. Among those who got the simple feedback, however, the increase was only 1 per cent. Furthermore it was shown that the households with the highest energy consumption and who got a sad face on their hanger decreased their energy consumption more than those who did not get this negative feedback.
In 2008 the City of Sacramento started sending monthly home electricity reports to 35 000 randomly selected residential customers where comparison to similar households were given and positive feedback was given by either one or two smileys to those that performed better than average. Six months after the pilot begun it was shown that the targeted households had reduced their electricity use by two percent more than the control group (60 000 customers). As a result of this study a new company called Opower was formed. Their idea is to cooperate with energy companies to give all their customers this type of regular feedback together with the energy bills.