Climate & Environment


Post-Doctoral Fellowships

United Kingdom

Renewable energy: Investigating the role of social reward and contagion

Is 'green' behavior contagious? Are we more likely to adopt pro-environmental actions if our neighbors are doing the same? And relatedly, would it strengthen our ecological commitment if we could advertise it to the outside world? Recent research spanning the social sciences emphasizes the crucial role of social reward, norms, and contagion in the adoption of pro-social behavior. "Despite the unprecedented threat posed on humanity by climate change, people’s energy behavior has been slow to change," remarks Dr. Greer Gosnell, an postdoctoral researcher in Environmental Economics at the London School of Economics and Political Science (United Kingdom). Recognizing the need for some sort of incentive, she aims to investigate individuals’ behavioral motivations to engage in ‘green’ behaviors related to their energy use. More specifically, she aims to understand means by which public and private organizations may capitalize upon humans’ strong social tendencies – specifically desire for social reward and proclivity for social convergence – in catalyzing the energy transition. The overall objective is to facilitate the rapid growth of green tariffs in the UK energy market and beyond, bolstering demand for renewable energy, increasing its required share in the energy mix, and fostering investment and competition for renewable energy technologies.

The incentive of social esteem on human behavior is nothing new. In 1759, Adam Smith, a famous Scottish economist and philosopher, explicitly referred to this tendency in The Theory of Moral Sentiments: "The desire of becoming the proper objects of this respect, of deserving and obtaining this credit and rank among our equals, is, perhaps, the strongest of all our desires." By the by, this quote introduces one of the scientific articles that inspired Dr. Greer Gosnell’s research approach. The study in question showed that environmental status signaling (a behavior referred to as conspicuous conservation) had a strong impact on people’s willingness to purchase hybrid vehicles, the Toyota Prius in particular (Sexton and Sexton, 2011). Building on such behavioral studies, and thus the assumption that social reward, norms, and contagion are key levers for 'green' behavior, Dr. Greer Gosnell aims to innovatively explore their relevance in the context of household-level technology adoption in the UK.

To conduct their study, the lead investigator and her team will conduct two field experiments, both looking to engage the public: one on green energy adoption and the other on the use of in-home smart plugs. "The first experiment consists in randomly providing a subset of UK households the opportunity to display visible signposting publicizing their renewable energy supply," Dr. Greer Gosnell specifies. "In particular, through on an on-going partnership with a prominent UK-based renewable energy supplier, we will investigate two things: first, whether individuals derive utility from eliciting social reward from otherwise invisible pro-environmental behaviors; and second, whether neighbors/peers are more likely to adopt said behaviors as a result of visible localized norm shifts".

The smart plug experiment –entitled POWBAL (short for ‘power balancing’), which is the name of the online user interface that will be made available to study participants –has a more technological focus. It aims to investigate people’s acceptance and use of initiatives that encourage consumers to optimize their energy use, also called energy demand management, or demand-side management (DSM). Specifically, the research team aims to assess and model participation in technologies like smart plug installation and remote management. "While DSM has been touted as one of the most cost-effective and immediate solutions in dealing with the intermittent energy supply of renewable technologies, little causal evidence exists surrounding consumers’ actual responses to DSM approaches. Many behavioral studies have attempted to increase the flexibility of energy demand to decrease the need for ‘dirty’ back-up power plants during periods of peak demand or low renewable generation. Likewise, many researchers have investigated the varied effects of social norms on energy consumption. Little research, however, applies social norms to household-level technology adoption nor to demand-side management outcomes. Even more novel is the use of smart plug devices to directly manage background energy consumption in the residential sector.

"Such innovative research initiatives on how to boost the adoption of 'green’ technologies at the household level are a crucial addition to energy transition research. As Dr. Greer Gosnell points out herself, state-level action plans alone are not sufficient: "Facing political economy constraints and decarbonization mandates, governments must rely on pro-environmental behavior at the microeconomic level to increase energy conservation and to supplement investment in renewable energy infrastructure." By boosting demand for smart and renewable energy supply to force energy suppliers to adapt and enabling intermittent generation via consumer engagement with smart technologies, the present project holds great potential for effective and applicable output.



London School of Economics and Political Science


United Kingdom



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