Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Introspection isn't always the best model

Perhaps this is one reason why do-gooders get frustrated when their earnest entreaties fail to yield the desired effect:
Amara Brook has illuminated this dilemma further. She measured how important environmental issues were to the self-esteem of 212 undergrads. Then she had them complete an ecological footprint questionnaire to which they received false feedback - either positive or negative (ie they were told that they consumed fewer resources than most people, or far more resources than most people). Finally, they were given the opportunity to write a letter to their local politician, on any pro-social topic they liked.

For those students for whom the environment was not important to their self-esteem, receiving negative feedback on the ecological footprint questionnaire actually prompted them to be less likely to write to their politician about environmental issues (relative to the students who received positive feedback about their footprint). In other words, for people who aren't green minded, alarming feedback on a footprint questionnaire can actually make them less sympathetic to green causes. For students whose self-esteem was tied to the environment, negative feedback on the footprint questionnaire had the effect you'd expect, prompting them to be more likely to write to their politician about environmental issues.
The nudgers who think it would be a great idea to tell folks the average power usage in their neighbourhood as part of their bill in hopes of encouraging conservation forget that some folks try for the high score.

When I lived in Virginia, the licence plate on my old Buick was "13 MPG"....


  1. Trying for the high score in power use is quite expensive. Perhaps this is one reason why with power bills the nudge does have the desired effect...

  2. I'd always assumed giving average data like that would pull usage down when it cost people in their pocket.

    Same with banking. Wonder what would happen if bank users could see what their peers are saving? I'd like to know how I compare to the average.

  3. Depends on whether it's tied to a real cost figure. If it's just a "footprint", not so good.