January 26, 2010

Brother, can you spare AC?

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Breaking out of the lab for the first time, Erez Yoeli (Ph. D '09) is bringing his experiments in altruism and the environmental conscience of communities to Southern California.

Yoeli, an economist at the Federal Trade Commission, studies the willingness of San Jose residents to implement environmentally friendly measures in their homes for the good of their neighbors. He also examines whether residents are influenced by others’ decisions to act similarly. “Why are people giving up the time? [Signing up] is a bit of a hassle,” Yoeli said.

Yoeli asked residents to enroll in California’s SmartAC program, which automatically turns down the air conditioning in a house when local power consumption is dangerously high in order to prevent blackouts. But the system also has a positive environmental impact in streamlining energy-usage and lowering peak consumption.

Yoeli’s study involved two components: how the request’s tone, and the neighbor’s responses, affected adoption rates.

Yoeli first divided residents into two random groups, and sent each group one of two letters asking if they were willing to have the system installed in their homes. The first letter simply explained the SmartAC program and requested their participation. The second included a paragraph describing energy use as a privilege, a “public good” that should be shared among community members. “A public good is anything that everybody enjoys but nobody really owns it,” Yoeli said.

The additional paragraph also used the metaphor of the butterfly effect, in which a butterfly flapping its wings in one part of the world can affect winds in another.

For the second part of the experiment, Yoeli divided the same residents into two new random groups, butterfly-recipients divided equally between them. In one of these groups, Yoeli made public the list of who was and was not adopting the SmartAC program, and in the other he did not. These were labeled revealing and anonymous conditions, respectively.

In the revealing condition, “I had folks sign up on a sign-up sheet, that I would post publicly in the lobby of an apartment,” Yoeli said, predicting that the revealing condition would encourage residents to adopt the system, similarly to public philanthropy. “If people know you give to charity, they are more likely to give to charity.”

While Yoeli found that people were more likely to adopt SmartAC in the revealing condition if a butterfly message was included, butterfly-recipients in the anonymous condition were less likely to use SmartAC. “I found the message was backfiring on the anonymous sheets,” he said.

Yoeli hypothesized that people in this “backfire” group reacted with questions like, “What’s the catch?” or “What’s in it for me?” Maybe people will be more willing to participate “if you don’t dress it up too much.”

While none of the trends in his preliminary findings was statistically significant, Yoeli said he planned to structure the next experiment differently by performing it ina city with a higher concentration of residents would intensify the effects of social influence. “Generally speaking, it worked well in apartment buildings with the revealing sign-up condition and the butterfly message. That increase is really strong,” he said.

Yoeli decided to do his research in real-life situations rather than a lab setting, trading hypothetical communities for California residents to gauge their reactions. A lot of research findings “don’t generalize well once they get out of the lab,” he said.

The idea of social approval, the idea that behavior is influenced by what others think, has only been researched in a laboratory setting. “It turns out we don’t have good evidence of it in the field. So basically I set out to do what we had done in the lab already,” Yoeli said.