Keeping up with the Joneses: Saving Resources Through Social Proof

Ryan OrendorfBlog

It’s been used to sell everything from war bonds to Big Macs and it’s one of the driving factors behind people’s enthusiastic interest in social media. So why isn’t social proof used more frequently to promote positive behavior change related to resource conservation?

According to Robert Cialdini, a professor of psychology and marketing at Arizona State University and an expert in persuasion science, social proof is a persuasion principle that relies on people’s sense of safety in numbers. As humans, we’re constantly on the lookout for social cues. We value the opinions of others like us and when we see a lot of them doing something, we assume it must be ok. It’s why I’m more likely to feel compelled to put a dollar in a tip jar that already contains money, or eat at a bustling restaurant instead of the empty one next door.

Signs of Change

Dr. Cialdini’s research supports this. A few years ago, he led studies for Opower to explore how to get customers to change their energy use habits. He left small signs on people’s door handles with one of four different messages and then measured the impact on their energy behaviors. The messages were roughly:

  1. Save energy for the environment.
  2. Save energy for future generations.
  3. Save energy to save money.
  4. The majority of your neighbors are undertaking energy saving actions every day.

At the end of the study, the only sign that made a difference on home energy use was #4, a clear example of the power of social proof in the experiment.

Counting Drops

I recently saw an example of social proof that may be following the lead of Dr. Cialdini’s experiment and trying to put it into practice. I received an email from my water utility announcing the launch of a pilot program featuring Dropcountr, an app designed to help people save water by making them more aware of their water usage. One of the main features may be the ability to see how your water usage compares to similar households in your area. For some people, the number of gallons they’re using per month may be harder to put into perspective and less important than the fact that they’re using less (and conserving more) than their neighbors.

Manny and Floyd

Believe it or not, social proof was in play in the Philippines on Saturday night when boxer Manny Pacquiao was taking on Floyd Mayweather in the “Fight of the Century.” A few days prior to the fight, Palawan Electric Cooperative, a Philippine electric company, urged customers to turn off appliances during the bout so that everyone could watch Pacquiao in action on TV without the threat of power outages. The message between the lines here was essentially the same as the message from Opower and Dropcountr. “All of your neighbors are doing this. You don’t want to be the only one left out, do you?” It turns the old keeping up with the Joneses cliché on its head to focus on less rather than more.

Childini actually sums it up best, at the end of a Wall Street Journal article on this topic. “We can move people to environmentally friendly behavior,” he says, “by simply telling them what those around them are doing.”