Riding the Bus…'Cause Julie's Cool

Info on what your peers are doing can encourage good behavior.

Light bulbsIf you want to get folks to cut their energy use, you don’t necessarily have to raise rates or hand out fluorescent light bulbs. Just let them know how much juice the Joneses are using. An article in the Atlantic Monthly reports that giving utility customers information on how much power they used compared to their neighbors drives down consumption.

The strategy was devised by Robert Cialdini, a social psychologist from Arizona State University and expert in tweaking human behavior through what he calls “peer information” (as opposed to peer pressure). 

A company called Positive Energy, at which Cialdini is the chief scientist, has created software that measures energy usage by neighborhood. Here’s how it’s used:

Results are sent to consumers on behalf of their local utility, praising you with a row of smiley faces (you’ve used 58 percent less electricity than your neighbors this month!) or damning you with none (you used 39 percent more electricity than your neighbors in the past 12 months, and it cost you $741 extra).

In Positive Energy’s reports, a once-intangible bit of social information—how much energy you use relative to your neighbors—is made tangible. Now you can find out not just what people in the same city are doing, but what people in your neighborhood, living in the same-size houses, are doing…

The approach was tested in Sacramento. How’d it work?

… Positive Energy began its pilot program with the Sacramento Municipal Utility District in 2008, people who received personalized “compared with your neighbors” data on their statements reduced their energy use by more than 2 percent over the course of a year. In energyspeak, a 2 percent reduction is huge; with the pilot sample of 35,000 homes, it’s the equivalent of taking 700 homes off the grid.

The research made me think of my own experience with riding the bus. It’s something I never really did growing up or when at college. I don’t love driving, but it’s what I’ve always done. Then a colleague named Julie at the Seattle P-I mentioned that she took the bus. I liked Julie. She lived not too far from my house, was a smart, cool girl, and was a reporter like me.

It made me rethink my no-to-buses policy, and after not too long I started taking the bus—not every day, but when it fit with my reporting duties. I found that I liked the time to read, and that the bus was consistently on schedule. I made reference to bus riding to other colleagues when I got the chance, trying to spread the faith, Cialdini-style. I’m not sure if I got many converts, but I’m still working on it. 

And some Washington residents will be getting a chance to get Positive Energy feedback; the Atlantic article said that their services are coming to the state. I’ve contacted the company for more information and will update this post when I get a response.

Light bulb photo courtesy of Flickr user Impala74under the Creative Commons license.


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  1. Betsy says:

    I’ve found something similar with biking, after inspiring two neighbors to bike to work by just doing it myself. I guess they figured if a slightly plump middle-aged mom could bike commute while pulling a preschooler in a trailer, they could do it, too!

  2. David Levinger says:

    Really nice piece,”You can be a Julie, too!” could be a great campaign concept.It seems that most people wish they had the kind of influence on other people that Julie had on you—just have that pull and perhaps admiration. A big part of that is standing out in some way—and I think sustainable behaviors are a great way to exhibit that kind of cool. I think that mastery over things like riding the bus or shopping—having a cool shoulder bag that’s contains a practical, comfortable and stylish shopping expansion—is about making them fit into your life. The less graceful among us are more clumsy and feel like we have to adapt to those new systems (e.g., wear spandex or keep piles of paper bags around).But this article offers this idea that you may never be too old to become smart or cool to other people. People who try new things and are adventurous might just be able to sway other people with the gracefulness of their discoveries.Lisa, I guess that now you are a “Julie” too!

  3. Eric Hess says:

    Great post, thanks Lisa. I wonder if this suggests that approval from a friend (or someone else you admire) has more of an impact on action than merely providing choices and information.Certainly, it’s all great info for figuring out how to get people to choose the most beneficial option.

  4. Michelle says:

    I think it’s also about having the *courage* to stand out when you’re choosing to do something different from the status quo. And when people begin to notice and follow your good example, then the status quo suddenly evolves into something better.And as this post and these comments suggest, FEEDBACK can be a great motivational force for creating positive change!

  5. justinf says:

    recently i’ve been thinking about this—utilities giving people feedback about how their energy usage compares with others.it would be fairly simple for the utility to set up a website where you could see how well you do compared to other customers. even better would be getting an email update every month to let us know how we are doing.if the utility let you update info about your home (occupants, square footage, etc), comparisons could be more interesting and useful. how are we doing against other single-family dwellings with 5 occupants? how are we doing against 2000-2500 sq ft homes? obviously they already know where your house is, so comparing against neighbors would be easy.it could also provide useful info for the utility and give them an opportunity to offer tips or upgrades to customers who want to reduce their energy usage and/or costs.

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