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.