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Emoticons Reduce Energy Use

People with emoticons on their heads
Problem Area: 

Problem

Using too much energy hurts the environment.

Solution

Including smiley and frowny face emoticons in people’s energy bills can lead entire neighborhoods to use less energy...

Details

In a California neighborhood, social psychologist Wesley Schultz and colleagues randomly assigned each household to receive one of two kinds of information about its energy usage. Households in the control condition received information about their own energy usage, as well as information about the average energy usage of other households in their neighborhood. Households in the treatment condition received the same information as did households in the control, plus an emoticon—a “frowny face” if they were consuming more than the neighborhood average, or a “smiley face” if they were consuming less than the neighborhood average.

The researchers discovered an undesirable “boomerang effect” in the control condition. Although energy-guzzlers reduced their usage, energy-conservers increased their consumption so that their behavior became more like that of their neighbors.

But in the treatment condition, the smiley face eliminated the boomerang effect: households with below-average consumption maintained their low usage. Additionally, households that had been using more energy than average reduced their usage in response to the frowny face.

Why This Works

People want to align their behavior with social norms, which are a community’s unwritten rules about how to act. Clearly communicating both what a community’s norms are and whether people are violating them are very important. On one hand, frowny faces tell high-energy-users that they are violating their community’s norms. On the other hand—and equally important—the smiley faces tell greener households that what they are doing is good and that they should continue doing it.    

When This Works Best

This intervention works best in communities where people care about the opinions and behaviors of their neighbors. 

The Original Study

Schultz, P. W., Nolan, J. M., Cialdini, R. B., Goldstein, N. J., & Griskevicus. V. (2007). The constructive, destructive, and reconstructive power of social norms. Psychological Science, 18(5), 429-434.  

In the Press

Association for Psychological Science News

Credits

Text by Laura Segre

Photo CC by TaylorHerring (adapted for size)