Utilities have discovered that tapping into consumers' competitive urges is the most effective way to jolt them into using less energy, the New York Times reports. Sacramento—in a program now copied in at least 10 other major cities—began awarding smiley faces to customers who did well compared to their neighbors. (They had to drop frowny faces from bills after complaints.) And to everyone's happy surprise: they seem to work.
"It is fundamental and primitive,” said one psychologist who found that telling households their neighbors had curbed energy use was a much more powerful incentive than mention of financial savings or saving the environment. “The mere perception of the normal behavior of those around us is very powerful.” Utilities have only just begun energizing rivalry between households, but at universities, energy-saving competitions have become so intense that students go off-campus to charge their cell phones.