22 Mar 2009

Peer Pressure

A psychologist criticizes weak methods of reducing water demand:
Promoting environmental virtue isn't like selling Big Macs on TV.

“The strategies widely used tend to be the least effective,” Schultz said,


Bombarding the masses: Expensive media campaigns trumpeting how serious the drought conditions are – and the oh-so-clever 1,001 tips on how you can be a better citizen – do little except insult the intelligence of consumers who've heard it all before.

If rational arguments outlining how grave the peril is – and how easy it is to conserve – were persuasive, Schultz, a wised-up environmentalist, would be riding a bike to campus. He drives his car.

Increasing the price: Sure, that works for the short term. When gas prices spike, people drive less. But the problem is that the introduction of money turns environmental citizenship into a “transaction,” the logic of which is inexorable: When the price comes down, the incentive to consume will rise.

If price is the cutting issue, people's motivation to conserve, which should be a matter of social conscience, becomes a personal one, Schultz implied. Bottom line, we're still pigs at heart.

Scaring with scarcity: San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders has announced likely water rationing this summer. That may be the only port in a drought but it's bad psychology, Schultz said.

Under the threat of rationing, the incentive is to act like a camel until July.


To create a radically new pattern of behavior, a cultural norm must be fostered in which everyone is acutely aware – in real time – how they're conserving in comparison with similarly situated human beings.


Smart meters are potentially life-changing inventions, he said, but to be effective they must go the extra step of creating lightning-quick comparisons with similar households. They must be social, as well as financial, gauges.
Although I agree on his main prescription (use peer pressure and competition to get people to conserve more water), I have two observations:
  1. Such smart meters are pretty expensive -- even for electricity.
  2. Higher prices will lead to permanent reductions in water consumption when the prices STAY high.
I'd love to hear what Schultz says about San Diego's "snoop on and turn in your neighbors" campaign. I know that the Soviets (and NSA!) would be charmed!

Bottom Line: Water cops, Mr. Drippy announcements, and threats of cataclysm do not work. Use prices and competition -- of any kind.


Eric said...

I have developed a working model of a few thousand neurons performing the first level of functions of memory.

Based on this model, I get a testable definition, at the molecular level, of what a 'habit' is and how to change one.

Based on that conclusion, I get the strong notion that long standing habits only get changed by continual feedback proving that the habit is wrong. Light or intermittent feedback will not work.

Applied to water, this insight into habits says that for water habits to change, each person needs daily feedback that their current water habits are not correct water habits. Intermittent feedback, such as the ads, will not work because the message that a person's water habits are wrong is not strong enough nor constant enough to effect a change.

So, given this model of habits, an effective change strategy might be to take water out of the status of a commodity ingredient and make it a rarer and more precious ingredient, one for which a person thinks, each day, about not wasting water, whether for drinking, showering, or watering the lawn. Not wasting water can't be an intermittent hassle but has to become part of a person's habits, like putting one foot in front of the other. This new habit has to, eventually, come from within not from some external pressure. External pressure is not strong enough to form a new habit. When the pressure goes away, so does the 'habit.'

Does this set of thoughts resonate with anyone?

Eric said...

By way of quantitation, if the cost to learn a new word in a foreign language is 10 units, the cost to change a long standing habit on a stable basis can easily exceed 10,000 units.

David Zetland said...

Eric -- this is what you need: http://gizmodo.com/345276/faucet-buddy-could-save-money-water-and-sensitive-skin

Philip said...

I think too many of the environmental spokespeople are stuck on a hectoring, dreary, moralizing message that (duh) nobody likes to hear. Yes, there are serious environmental problems, just as there is sin in the world; but a church that preaches nothing but hellfire, self-mortification and damnation makes few converts, and attracts only the fanatical. Too many self describes environmentalists reject markets, technological progress, and science in favor of a reactionary and self-satisfied worldview.

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