People conserve electricity when being watched

People save more energy when told that they’re part of a study on electricity usage, researchers report in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

This pattern, called the Hawthorne effect, refers to people’s tendency to change their behavior simply because they’re aware of being observed. The authors studied 5,598 electricity customers in the mid-Atlantic U.S. and sent about half of them a postcard saying that they were part of an electricity usage study. Those customers also received four more postcard reminders about the study over the next month.

The customers who were informed of the study cut their electricity usage by 2.7 percent, even though the postcards had told them that “No action is needed on your part.” While that reduction may seem small, it’s “greater than the annual conservation goal currently mandated by any state,” the authors point out.

So does that mean people could become even greener if they received a constant stream of postcards? Not necessarily, the team says. It’s not clear whether customers would build up stronger energy conservation habits — or tune out the reminders after awhile. Roberta Kwok | 4 September 2013

Source: Schwartz, D. et al. 2013. The Hawthorne effect and energy awareness. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences doi: 10.1073/pnas.1301687110.

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