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By Sarah Baicker, Medill News Service

RISMEDIA, Oct. 8, 2007-Even the smallest efforts to conserve energy make a difference. Whether it’s reusing towels, saving gasoline by driving hybrid cars or just turning off the TV when leaving a room, simple actions yield results.

Questions, however, do arise when it comes to getting Americans to actually engage in such energy-saving behaviors. But that problem may be closer than ever to an answer, thanks to simple psychology. In the battle to get Americans to conserve energy, one researcher has found, it seems a most unlikely tactic works best: peer pressure.

Robert B. Cialdini, a social psychologist and Regents’ Professor of psychology and marketing at Arizona State University in Tempe, has been researching relationships between psychology and pro-environmental action since the early 1990s. He addressed the House Science and Technology Subcommittee on Research and Science Education last week with some of his recent findings.

Cialdini pointed to a pair of studies that he conducted that began with a simple survey distributed to about 3,000 Californians. It asked respondents to select which of four factors would best motivate them to conserve energy: conserving because it saves money; conserving to preserve the earth; conserving in order to be a socially responsible citizen; and conserving because most others in the neighborhood were conserving.

“They indicated that their neighbors’ behaviors would be of little impact on their own,” Cialdini said of the survey’s respondents. But when he looked at what they did, compared to what they said, “the only factor that had any significant impact on whether they conserved energy was their perceptions of what their neighbors were doing.”

Surprised, Cialdini did a follow-up experiment in which his team of researchers hung signs on doors of homes in San Marcos, Calif., asking homeowners to conserve energy. Each sign contained a message that reflected one of the four factors examined in the survey.

Yet again, the only message that had any effect on the homeowners’ behavior was the one that stated the majority of others in the neighborhood were choosing to conserve. And this time, the evidence was measurable: Homeowners who received the sign asking them to conserve because most others in their neighborhood did reduce their energy-use by two kilowatt hours.

As effective as peer pressure appears to be, the technique has yet to be harnessed in real-world situations.

“The people who generate the messages don’t believe that this simple information can be so motivating,” Cialdini said. “There is a great tendency to under recognize the power of social norms, what those around us are doing and approving of.”

When told of the Cialdini’s studies, Howard Page, chair of the Mississippi Chapter of the Sierra Club said they “make sense.”

But just as Cialdini found, Page also said that the Sierra Club doesn’t employ such “peer pressuring” tactics when urging conservation. Instead, Page said, the Sierra Club primarily attempts to appeal to people’s ethics and desire to save money. Both, Cialdini demonstrated, had minimal effect on people’s actions. Page did say he saw the advantages of peer pressure in spreading conservation messages, and can envision the Sierra Club one day utilizing Cialdini’s findings.

“I can absolutely see the social pressures working,” Page said. “If you’re a mom in a neighborhood where everyone else on your block drives an SUV, you probably don’t feel too bad. But if everyone else drives a hybrid, well, that pressure works both ways.”