Pacific Swell | Southern California environment news and trends

Song of the Week: 'Shame,' by the Avett Brothers, for social proof and your electric bill

This song of the week goes with a conversation I'm having with The Madeleine Brand Show tomorrow morning about a new way some utilities are using to encourage people's energy use. Which is shame.

So the song is Shame, by the Avett Brothers.

Technically, it's a song about being wrong and apologizing to someone, something these boys do often, well, and for a variety of wrongs (though none are, in substance, energy efficiency). But listen to the chorus. It's right on point:


Boatloads of shame

Day after day

More of the same

In the last three years, academics have found that shame works. Though the guys in the field call it "social proof." It's a phenomenon by which people assume that other people are doing the right thing, and so they compare themselves, find themselves lacking, and experience a range of emotions, including shame.

At Arizona State, Bob Cialdini is known as something of an influence guru. In the middle of the last decade, he applied the principles of social influence to environmental issues. By 2008, he tried out different messages to convince guests in a Phoenix hotel to help conserve water. The one that worked asked people to join others in conserving water to help the environment. He's learned that other people doing something is a good idea works to actually make it a good idea.

Behavioral economist Hunt Allcott at MIT and NYU with his team looked at this problem, too. An article that MIT professor Hunt Alcott and his colleagues have in press confirms that social proof — an academic term for implementing these ideas of shame and competition — can help save 2 percent of energy use. These guys say, "Don't appeal to our nobler side; appeal to our base instincts."


Please lift it off

Please take it off

Please make it stop

Sacramento Municipal Utility District has applied social proof too. Among the first 35,000 homes, people saved that 2 percent. May not sound like a lot, but that's the same as taking 700 homes off the grid. And it's still working. Scale that up, that's a whole lot of energy saved in a state that's been saving energy better than anyone else in the US for a long time.

As for Madeleine Brand's producer, Kristin Muller, her shame is delivered to her in Pasadena courtesy of OPower. OPower is a consumer platform adopted by utilities around the country, including Glendale Water & Power, Pasadena Water & Power, Burbank Water & Power, Anaheim Utilities, and San Diego Gas & Electric. Some smaller-scale studies OPower's done have found social proof yielding as much as 4 percent energy savings, with year-over-year improvements.

Kristin says she's gunning to jump up the rankings in her neighborhood now. She feels like there's something at stake. Would you?

Listen to the entire Song of the Week playlist.