Sunday, December 13, 2009

Public good provision and behavioral research

While the negotiators gather in Copenhagen to get an agreement on a global policy of climate change, it is time to reflect on some insights what leads to behavioral change. Increasingly there are insights from behavioral studies that can help to increase provision to public goods such as energy conservation. In Peterson et al. (2007) [International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education 8(1): 16-33] the researchers organized a competition in energy savings among dormitories. They find that this reduced the energy use significantly, especially when the dormitories got high resolution feedback on the energy use. People like competition, especially they like to win a competition. Thus creating a competition in meeting environmental goals may be effective and cost effective means to stimulate a behavioral change.
Another study shows that providing individual energy users accurate information on their energy use in relation to the average energy use in the community [Schultz et al. (2007) Psychological Science 18(5): 429-434]. People who used more than the average energy amount, reduced their energy use, but those who used less energy than average increased their energy use. This last effect disappeared when participants received a smiley face when they got the same information on energy use together with a smiley face :-) on the lower energy use than the average in their neighborhood.
These two examples show that stimulation of behavioral change is not neccesarily dependent on economic incentives or formal regulation. People like to do meet social norms and if we frame behavioral change as something desirable in a community of "polluters" we can expect a reduction of pollution if accurate and relevant information is provided on your pollution level compared to others.