Making Energy Conservation a Competition

Using Comparative Feedback to Influence Workplace Energy Conservation: A Case Study of a University Campaign
by Graham Nichols Dixon, Mary Beth Deline, Katherine McComas, Lauren Chambliss and Michael Hoffmann
in Environment and Behavior

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Key takeaways:

  • Comparative feedback campaigns have been proven more effective in an organizational setting in changing attitudes compared to just knowledge or attitude campaigns.
  • Comparative feedback was able to significantly change conservation and energy use behaviors, but not attitudes or norms.
  • Comparative feedback is most effective in an organizational setting because its main motivator is competition and the desire to outperform others.
  • Maybe in part because they don’t change attitudes, it is unknown whether comparative feedback can lead to *sustained* behavior changes.
  • Feedback should be interactive, accessible, and not hurt the self image of those receiving it to be effective.

With recent and concerning reports about Global Warming making headlines, going green has become increasingly important. Large organizations, such as universities or businesses, use large amounts of precious energy and can be a main culprit of energy overuse. But individual employees may not feel responsible for energy habits of their buildings. They don’t pay the bills and have to share appliances and facilities. So how do we get these kind of places to do their part and help conserve? One answer may be comparative feedback.

It might sound complicated but it is really quite simple. Comparative feedback is just what sounds like – feedback that compares multiple things. A recent study by Dixon et al. investigated the effects of comparative feedback about energy usage on a sample of Cornell University buildings. The study showed comparative feedback can be a cheap, relatively easy to implement, and useful tool in reducing energy use.

Comparative feedback can serve as an effective way to cut through the traditional barriers that affect energy use at large work places. It provides both concrete feedback (which is important, again as earlier most employees don’t worry about the energy bill) and incentives workers. Also many workers feel they don’t have the power to reduce energy usage on their own while comparative feedback invites a collective responsibility. The incentive examined in the case study was a so called green initiative challenge – “CALS goes green” – where six buildings were pitted against each other in a competition to reduce energy usage. The building that reduced energy usage the most each month was declared the winner.

The recent case study by Dixon et al. examined the energy usage of occupants of five buildings on the Cornell University Campus in Ithaca, New York. The researchers also had the building occupants answer two surveys – one before the green campaign in 2009 and one after – that investigated both their attitudes and self-reported behaviors about energy usage. The green buildings were compared to a similar group of control buildings also on the campus, meaning very similar buildings that were not undergoing a green campaign. These buildings are of interest since they consist of many different departments and separate, autonomous groups with their own values and priorities. So if one effort can get all these disparate people to conserve, it’s promising.

One common problem these green campaigns face is research has shown that one’s attitudes about conservation habits only weaken correspond to their energy use habits. Or put another way, people generally don’t act how they say they should. So comparative feedback campaigns motivate people to conserve by making it a competition. Now the motivation isn’t so hard to pin down – it’s to outperform others, regardless of how gung-ho you are about saving the earth. This draws on our natural human tendencies to want to outperform others and the fact we as are naturally susceptible to social cues. In fact comparative feedbacks campaigns don’t appear to change our attitudes, as the case study’s survey shows – peoples attitudes and beliefs towards energy conservation was largely unchanged – it just changes behavior. While this could be problematic, its appears to be effective. Changing behavior is what we’re after, anyways.

As stated, compared to the baseline readings before the campaign, there was no significant changes in attitudes, norms, or behavioral intentions in the green buildings. However there were significant increases in actual conservation activity – both self-reported via a later survey and by measuring actual building usage in kilowatt hours (A unit of energy expenditure). The green competition buildings decreased energy usage by an average of 6.5%, a pretty healthy clip. This ranged from one building’s league leading 11.1% decrease to a stubborn Morrison Hall’s 1.6% increase in energy usage. The similar control buildings during the same timespan increased their energy usage by 2.4%, likely due to harsh summer conditions. So in total, the green competition buildings decrease their energy use by 6.5% in comparison to the start of the campaign, while the control increased by 2.4%, which means the campaign could’ve accounted for a rather large 8.9% swing in energy usage. Now 6.5% is a pretty considerable drop and speaks to the possible effectiveness of comparative feedback in the right setting.

However after the green campaign, and with the comparative feedback absent, the five buildings energy usage increased again. The responding increase was less than the preceding decrease, but it still happened. All together, their was an overall decrease of 3.2% energy usage from 2009 (It went down, than slightly up again). But this is still a healthy decrease. So what happened? It could be that those lack of changes attitudes hurt after the campaign ended. Although there was still significant changes in behavior, without the corresponding feedback or attitude adjustment the results were more mild. Because of this, questions remain if comparative feedback can lead to sustained┬ábehavior changes. The energy rebound is something corresponding author Graham Dixon called “problematic.” He emphasized how this might speak more to the effectiveness of the comparative feedback campaign itself than a drawback.

That being said comparative feedback still has been proven more effective than just knowledge or attitude changing campaigns in changing actual behavior. This might be because comparative feedback can be effective in a setting where negative predispositions or attitudes to conservation (or other ideas) exist. Since you don’t change their attitudes, you can still affect these individuals behaviors. They still want to outcompete and win the comparisons (Which conjures an interesting scene of a grizzled employee saying to himself, “Well global warming is all BS but I’ll be damned if I let Jim in accounting outperform me”). Also comparative feedback, since its main feature is competition, is more effective in an organizational than residential setting. We’d rather outcompete our coworkers and other departments than our neighbors and families. Organizations also feature a clear cut hierarchal leadership and a captive daily audience – employees.

When designing and incorporating comparative feedback there are a few considerations. The feedback needs to be suitably interactive, so results can be seen and accessed. Employees need to be able to see the feedback after all. The feedback should also be designed in a way that doesn’t hurt the self image of those receiving it. In other words, don’t make people feel bad about their old behaviors or how much they’re being outperformed by or you could risk people ignoring the message, or even actively resisting it.

There are some limitations to consider from this study. Cornell is an environmental inclined and land grant institution (CALS does stand for College of Agriculture and Life Sciences) so they might have naturally more dispositions and attitudes about conserving energy. The authors couldn’t get data on one building which narrowed the results from six to five buildings, and could not determine which employees responded to the survey meaning it can’t be determined if same employees who completed the 2009 survey where the same ones who completed the post study survey about attitudes and beliefs. So it remains to seen, and probably worth looking into, how much a current population’s beliefs and attitudes about conservation could affect how they respond to a comparative feedback campaign. Even though this case study did show clear evidence of the effectiveness of comparative feedback in large organizations, it remains to seen how generalizable these findings are. It is something that needs to be, and hopefully will be investigated in future studies, with future green campaigns.

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