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Is social pressure more powerful than financial incentives?

In this TED talk, Alex Laskey shows how a quirk of human behaviour can make us all better, wiser energy users, with lower bills to prove it. The trick is letting people know how they compare to their neighbours. Could this be used to improve recycling rates at home?

Photo of Karoline K
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Here's an edited transcript of a part of the talk. 

10 years ago, a behavioural science experiment was run in San Marcos California. Graduate students put signs on every door in a neighbourhood, asking people to turn off their air conditioning and turn on their fans. One quarter of the homes received a message that said,  did you know you could save 54 dollars a month this summer?Turn off your air conditioning, turn on your fans. Another group got an environmental message. And still a third group got a message about being good citizens, preventing blackouts.  Most people guessed that money-saving message would work best of all but, in fact, none of these messages worked. They had zero impact on energy consumption. It was as if the grad students hadn't shown up at all.

But there was a fourth message, and this message simply said,  "When surveyed, 77 percent of your neighbours said that they turned off their air conditioning and turned on their fans. Please join them. Turn off your air conditioning and turn on your fans." And wouldn't you know it, they did. The people who received this message showed a marked decrease in energy consumption simply by being told what their neighbours were doing.

So what does this tell us? Well, if something is inconvenient, even if we believe in it, moral suasion, financial incentives, don't do much to move us -- but social pressure, that's powerful stuff. And harnessed correctly, it can be a powerful force for good." 

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How might we harness social pressure to increase recycling rates in communities? 

Would you behave differently, if you were able to compare your recycling efforts to those of your neighbours?

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Photo of Kaye Han

This is really insightful, thanks for sharing Karoline. It would be interesting to see how much the other people in my apartment building recycle, or even my entire building complex. I can say for sure on a personal level that I would be motivated more to recycle by this method.

This reminds me of a HR trick that they use to get employees to punctually send in their timesheet; instead of sending reminder emails, they simply would post up progress graphs of how many people have handed in their sheet and how many people haven't. The majority of employees assumed that everybody didn't hand in their sheets and therefore they didn't bother either, but when these things are posted publicly it definitely changed the tone. Again, great share - cheers!

Photo of Congmin Liang

I totally agree with you "It would be interesting to see how much the other people in my apartment building recycle, or even my entire building complex." and the store you shared is really great, like it!

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