Flickr/cobalt123/Rachel D

Tucson residents have long seen their low-water landscaping choices as superior to their neighbors in Phoenix. Now researchers are trying to apply the same principle to all utility usage

There is a social norm in Tucson that says you do not plant a grass lawn. It started to take root in the 1970s when the city government pulled out all of the grass medians in public rights-of-way and replaced them with xeriscaping, a type of drought-tolerant landscaping that looks to non-native eyes like pleasantly manicured desert.

Then the city launched Beat the Peak, a public-service campaign designed to sensitize residents to water conservation during the high summer usage months. In the Southwest, outdoor residential water use often accounts for more than what people consume from their faucets and toilets. Rich Franz-Under, the green building program manager in Pima County, laughs at the memory that the slogan was initially part of a capital improvement deferral, a stopgap for an era when the city didn’t want to have to expand its pipe infrastructure. But over time the campaign evolved into a conservation strategy, and it’s still used today.

“In this town, everybody knows Beat the Peak,” Franz-Under says. “There’s even a mascot you can have” – Pete the Beak – “who can come to your event.”

Before the campaign, Franz-Under says a subdivision in Tucson looked a lot like a subdivision in Phoenix, the Arizona state capital that’s been blessed with relatively more water resources and more of an agricultural history. But as front lawns began to disappear over time, the norm grew so strong that it eventually developed a counterpoint: the stigma.

“I actually remember one of my good friends in high school used to call Phoenix ‘The Evil Empire,’” says Mick Dalrymple, a Tucson native who now works at Arizona State University in Tempe, just outside Phoenix. “Not only was the power of the state concentrated in Phoenix, but there was just seemingly tremendous water use there. You’d drive down the street and see sprinklers watering lawns and golf courses.”

This idea – that people will change their beliefs and behavior through social norms – could be a powerful tool for cities chasing sustainability in everything from water consumption to recycling programs to energy efficiency. On the scale of a whole city, small decisions about thermostats and plant species add up. But front yards are an easy target. There’s no hiding your luscious lawn in a desert city from your neighbors’ disapproval. But how could cities take the same concept and apply it inside homes and businesses, where people consume energy in private, and invisibly?

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The city of Phoenix, Arizona State University and the local power utility are trying to figure this out in a three-year project funded by a federal stimulus grant. The program, Energize Phoenix, is targeting 1,800 residential units and 30 million square feet of commercial space in an effort to get people to go for the low-hanging fruit of energy efficiency.

“It’s not as sexy as solar panels on the roof,” says Dimitrios Laloudakis, the city’s energy manager. “It’s someone crawling up in the attic, adding insulation, fixing leaky duct work.”

But how exactly would you get people to take on these renovations, or to simply turn down the AC? Are there attitudinal differences that make some people predisposed to get an energy audit? Are retired people, or lower-income people, or people living in condos more susceptible to messaging about energy efficiency? And what exactly should that messaging say?

Susan Ledlow, a social psychologist at ASU, wants to create the social norm that energy conservation is something everyone does. This is a distinctly different message from “energy conservation is something you should do.” She wants people to hear that many, many people care about this, and that those people are doing something about it.

“The more people hear that,” Ledlow says, “the more it becomes a social reality.

Psychologists have learned over the years that one of the most effective ways to persuade people to do something is to give them information about what other people are doing.

“People are far more persuaded by what everybody actually does, even when they say that they’re not,” Ledlow says. “There’s just experiment after experiment where you can get people to change their behavior to match the behavior of the people around them. And then they will swear that that’s not why they did it. Yet we know that happens.”

You could stage a person on a street corner staring up at the sky, and other people walking by will casually look up, too. Put a bunch of people on a street corner looking up, and the trend really takes off. This is literally one of those experiments.

“We’re obviously a social species, we’re adaptive,” Ledlow says. “If somebody is yelling ‘fire!’ and everybody is running in one direction, you don’t want to run in the opposite direction.”

In this way, she says, we’re pre-wired to look at the behavior of others as a guide to what we should be doing. And this is why the landscaping norm in Tucson works. One of the best tricks that has been deployed so far in energy efficiency is to tell people on their utility bills how their consumption compares to their neighbors. But we don’t want people with low consumption to get the wrong message – that, for instance, they should now feel free buy that second refrigerator.

To mitigate this, researchers have found that information must be paired with some normative judgment – a smiley face, or a statement such as “your energy use is below-average! Good job! Keep it up!” It’s a little embarrassing to think that we’re effectively influenced by a verbal pat on the back. But evidence has shown that we are.

“There’s a tremendous amount known about – I hate to say ‘consumer behavior,’ because it should be about ‘citizen behavior’ and ‘company behavior,’” says Dalrymple, who is the project manager for Energize Phoenix. “We call ourselves ‘consumers’ and that creates the mindset that all we’re here to do is consume.”

Much of this research in fact comes from marketing. Some people may not like the idea that governments can sell ideas, too, Dalrymple acknowledges. But to a certain extent, governments already do this (Kids should go to school. You should not eat on the subway. You should never park next to a fire hydrant.). And why not create effective messaging that pushes sustainability?

“Marketing people have been using all of these behavioral change strategies to get us to buy more stuff, in essence to behave less sustainably,” Ledlow says. “In a way, people who are interested in the public good are just catching up in terms of thinking about how we can be just as sophisticated about getting you to reduce your energy consumption as somebody selling you a Hummer can be to get you to increase your energy consumption.”

•       •       •       •       •

Participants in the Energize Phoenix program are all located on a 10-mile corridor along a light rail line, in the hope that the project can foster a culture in the area where energy efficiency becomes the norm. The people enrolled have all signed waivers to grant researchers at ASU their last three years of data from the local utility. Researchers will also get to follow their usage over the next three years.

During this time, participants will have the chance to pay for efficiency retrofits through rebates from the utility and matching funds from the city’s grant pool. Economists at ASU will crunch the financial savings. Ledlow’s team meanwhile will be testing behavioral cues. Exactly which financial incentives lure people to participate? What language should contractors use to sell the retrofits?

Psychologists have also learned that people more acutely fear loss than we hope for gain. This suggests people might be more responsive to “Retrofit your home and stop losing money!” as opposed to “Retrofit your home and save money!” Ledlow also plans to test public service announcements that will tell the stories of real families that have done retrofits (look, your neighbors are doing it!). And some residences will be outfitted with dashboards giving real-time consumption information down to the individual appliance, letting researchers see how people react to more fine-grained feedback.

The entire challenge for the city is three-fold. First it needs to change peoples’ attitudes about energy efficiency (few homes and businesses will bother if this seems like something only granola-types do). Then it needs to change their behavior (because psychology literature is full of people whose actions don’t match their beliefs). And then it needs that behavior, through critical mass, to become a social norm.

Even in Tucson, where the water campaign has been so successful, and where recycling was popular years before it took off nationally, Franz-Under looks at this end goal around energy efficiency and sounds overwhelmed. “We’re very far from that,” he says.

But it’s possible to envision a norm that catches on in one block, spreads up the street and eventually to the neighborhood level. Neighbors chat about their retrofits, their bill savings during a rough economy. Then they see a familiar face on a subway ad for happy insulation customers. The idea spreads along the rail line. The average consumption figures on the monthly electricity bill tick down, and the norm expands out regionally.

Cities have a role in this.

“It’s part of our customer service to our residents,” Laloudakis says. “So if our residents are missing information that, easily applied, can save them 5, 10, 15, 20 percent on their utility bill, that’s good information for us to communicate. If behavior modification alone gets to half of that, maybe they don’t even have to make an investment.”

It is of course harder to install an idea than a new state-of-the-art water heater.

“But you can apply all the technology you want,” Dalrymple says. “If you haven’t taken people’s behaviors into account and planned for that, then your efforts may not come to a whole lot.”

Can peer pressure can help people live more sustainably? And can cities harness this power effectively? Leave your ideas in the comments below. We'll highlight the best submissions at the end of the week.

Images courtesy Flickr users cobalt123 (left) and Rachel D.

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