When it comes to energy, policymakers are often confronted with human behavior that seems irrational, unpredictable, or unmanageable. Advocates for energy efficiency in particular are plagued by the gap between what it would make sense for people to do and what they actually do. Efforts to change people’s behavior have a record that can charitably be described as mixed. (See my post, Making buildings more efficient: It helps to understand human behavior.)

Many of the experiments that have cast the most light on what does (and doesn’t) drive behavioral shifts around energy have been run by Dr. Robert Cialdini, until recently the Regents’ Professor of Psychology and W.P. Carey Distinguished Professor of Marketing at Arizona State University (he retired in May of last year). Cialdini’s professional focus is not just on energy but on behavior more generally, and the ways behavior is influenced. His seminal 1984 book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, is used in business and marketing schools across the country, and his most recent book, Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive (co-authored with Dr. Noah Goldstein and Steve Martin), was a New York Times bestseller.

Robert Cialdini. Robert Cialdini. Photo courtesy wikimedia commonsCialdini describes six “weapons of influence”:

  • Reciprocity: people will repay favors.
  • Commitment and Consistency: people will stick to commitments made publicly.
  • Social Proof: people will do what other people do.
  • Authority: people obey authority figures.
  • Liking: people are more influenced by those they like.
  • Scarcity: people desire what is perceived as scarce.

He consults for a variety of organizations, exploring how these mechanisms can be used to produce positive results. Maybe the clean energy crowd should listen in!

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Q. What is social psychology?

A. Social psychology is the study of everyday behavior — behavior that has some kind of a social context — and the factors that change and influence it. How do people think about social interactions, and how do those social interactions change the way they think?

Q. There seems to be an uptick in interest about the application of social psychology to energy policy. What’s bringing it about?

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A. It’s the least capital-intensive way of making change. I’m speaking of both kinds of capital here: financial and social. Technology costs a lot. Incentive programs cost a lot (and as soon as they’re discontinued the behavior flops back). Legislation, legal constraints, taxes, penalties of one sort or another — those are costly in terms of social capital, which organizations and governments are loathe to spend these days.

What you have with social psychology is a set of procedures that are essentially costless to enact but produce levels of change that are comparable to those other mechanisms.

Q. What can social psychology contribute to energy policy?

A. It can help understand a set of motivations that are based on social interactions and social rules. I’ll give you a great example. An economist at Harvard decided to see how much money it would take to get people to let him skip ahead of them in line. Sure enough, according to economic understanding of human behavior, the more he offered to pay them, the more willing they were to let him cut ahead of them in line.

Then he found something that flew in the face of what an economist would say: people wouldn’t take his money. It was the offer itself that told them how socially responsible they were to let this guy skip ahead of them, because he must have a need. There’s a rule called the “norm for social responsibility” that says we are obligated to help those people who are dependent on us for aid. The money he offered them was a signal for how great his need was. It wasn’t about an economic exchange at all, it just looked like it was.

Q. It seems like fine-grained understanding of how people interact. How do you scale it up as policy, to get substantial effects?

A. As I argued in Influence, I’ve tried to identify the universals of human experience — those things that produce assent across the widest range of situations and settings and practitioners. You follow an authority; you pay back those who have given to you; you seize scarce or dwindling opportunities; you follow the lead of others like you and what they’re doing; and so on.

Take an example. The fastest growing development within marketing right now is called “social cause marketing” — it’s even outstripped sports sponsorship. It involves some entity, usually a corporate group, saying to its customers or its market, “if you purchase our product or employ our services, we will donate so much money to a good cause.” They’re banking on an understanding of the rule of reciprocity: people want to give back to those who have given to them in a meaningful exchange.

Well, we put signs in hotel room bathrooms–this isn’t published yet–that said, “[Re-use your bath towels] for the environment.” That was the control group. The other sign said, “If you [re-use your towels], we’ll donate a percentage of the savings that we get at the end of the year to an environmental cause.” That didn’t produce any increase in towel reuse.

But if we said, “We’ve already donated to an environmental cause in the name of our guests,” now we get reciprocity. That produced, I think, a 28 percent increase over either of the other strategies. You can apply this to social cause marketing: if you’re going to give a donation anyway, you should give it first.

So it is possible to employ these principles in broad-gauged ways to produce large-scale change. And it’s costless — that’s the thing.

Q. Have any policy-makers contacted you? Are you aware of any efforts to systematize this stuff into policy?

A. Yes. Interestingly enough, in the U.K. I’ve been asked to speak at 10 Downing Street about this three times now, and I’ve spoken to congressional committees here in the United States as well. [See “The Contribution of the Social Sciences to the Energy Challenge,” a 2007 hearing of the House Committee on Science and Technology.] I’m hopeful that there is a movement toward evidence-based decision-making, an attempt to undertake actions that incorporate what social scientists have learned.

Q. Can you point to particular policies that have incorporated these insights?

A. I can give you some evidence of what happened in the presidential campaign, where the Democratic National Committee used this information in very effective ways to get out the vote. They recognized that it was a serious mistake to do what they had been doing in previous elections, saying to registered Democrats, “So many Democrats failed to vote in 2004 that it caused this terrible country.” Instead, they changed the wording to, “So many Democrats voted. Join them!” There’s a recent article in the Journal of Politics that showed that those two strategies had dramatically different effects on voting behavior.

Notice what the Obama campaign did when it announced the donations it had received the previous quarter. It was brilliant: they didn’t just list the amount of money they had received, they listed the number of contributors who had donated. The multitude became the message. People want to be with the crowd. It tells them something not only about what’s appropriate, but what’s possible for them.

If we send people in San Diego a message saying the majority of your neighbors are conserving energy on a daily basis, that has more effect than telling them to do it for the environment or to be socially responsible citizens or to save money. If your neighbors are doing it, it means it’s feasible. It’s practicable. You can do it — people like you.

It was very important that we say “people in your neighborhood.” If we said “the majority of Americans,” that wasn’t effective. If we said “the majority of Californians,” that was more effective. If we said “the majority of San Diegans,” that was more effective. But the most effective was “the majority of your neighbors.” That’s how you decide what’s possible for you: what people in your circumstance are able to do.

Q. How do you respond to the notion that there’s something vaguely Orwellian about the government or corporations using this information to change people’s behavior?

A. I’ve heard it from certain commentators on the right; Glenn Beck was one of them. There are even legislators in Congress who are complaining about certain aspects of the energy bill on this. It’s a know-nothing argument; what you are railing against is honest information. What is tricky about telling people about what their neighbors are doing and letting them adjust to whatever extent they want? There’s no penalty. There’s no constraint. There’s no government incentive. You’re going to tell me you’re against giving people information?

Q. Liberals still tend to think that if you give people plain facts, action follows.

A. In our San Diego study, we went door to door and put hangers on people’s doorknobs with various messages. We had a control group where some homes received no door hanger, no message. We had another control group where they received a message that told them that saving energy was a good idea and urged them to do it. Those two control groups were equivalent in energy savings at the end of the month. Information and exhortation was the same as nothing.

Changing people’s knowledge, changing people’s attitudes, changing people’s beliefs are all on the surface of changing their behavior. So let’s cut to the chase: Let’s change their behavior. There are techniques for doing it that don’t involve having to change any of those [other] things.

I saw an article a while ago about Washington, D.C.’s inner-city parents — the extent to which exposure to fast food advertising and promotions affected how much they took their families to fast food restaurants. Sure enough, the more promotion and advertising they were exposed to, the more they ate fast food. But those promotions didn’t change their attitudes about fast food or their belief that fast food was bad for them. It only changed what they thought their neighbors were doing.

Q. One of the toughest nuts to crack is energy efficiency — there’s all this potential, but people just don’t do it. Any thoughts on how these insights could be applied to efficiency?

A. You could ask people to indicate the extent to which they think energy efficiency is a good thing, and make it a public, active commitment — then they’re going to be more likely to be consistent with it. You can tell them what stands to be lost instead of what stands to be gained. You can tell them what their neighbors are doing. You can tell them what experts are saying about this. Each one might have an additive effect; you’re going to clip 3 or 4 or 5 percent off with each one. But if you add them up, now you are talking about something that’s much more than a minor deflection.

Q. How much government R&D funding goes to this kind of thing vs. technology development?

A. It’s miniscule. [Rep.] Brian Baird [D-Wash.] has a bill in which he recommends that the Department of Energy have a branch devoted to behavioral science research. That’s what produced the “nanny state” objection in Congress. He’s had to withdraw the bill and try to make it an amendment to something else.

Q. It’s weird how long we’ve lived together as a species, yet still we know so little about why we do what we do.

A. Nobody would be surprised to read that these are universals of human behavior. What’s surprising is how little people know how to activate and amplify them.

There’s research that shows that if a waiter leaves a mint on the tray with the bill, his tips go up 3.3 percent. If he leaves two mints on the tray, tips go up 14 percent. What’s the message? It’s that people give back to those who have given to them. The majority of people would say, well, I knew that. I have to say, if people know that, how come in 50 percent of the restaurants I go in there’s no mint? How come in the 50 percent where there are, half of the time the mints are in a basket by the door, where nobody inside the restaurant benefits? So people know these things at a surface level, but they don’t know how to activate them systematically.

Q. I saw that you retired from academia. What’s next for you?

A. I retired in order to write a couple of books I had in my head. I think the greatest disservice that social scientists have performed to the public at large is to keep their information pretty much to themselves.

Q. I find that very frustrating. Environmentalists are constantly having tortured discussions about how to influence people. Everybody has their own folk theory or intuition. But where is the empirical knowledge about this stuff?

A. In the academic journals. In places where people wouldn’t ever be able to find it, and if they could, they couldn’t parse it — it’s jargon laden. This is a soapbox issue for me. The work I’ve done and my colleagues have done is supported by the non-academic community, either through research grants or tuition payments. The public is entitled to know what we found out with their money, about them and how they work, and we keep failing to come through on our end.

I owe it to people to write some books. We have over 50 years of research into the psychology of persuasion. We know a lot.