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Monday, April 16, 2007
Emoticons: They work
Many colleges use peer pressure, counterintuitively, as a tool to reduce alcohol abuse. The idea is that heavy-drinking students overestimate how much their classmates drink, and they'd cut back if they really understood where their own behavior falls on the bell curve.*
Environmentalists also hope to make increasing use of such "social norms" messages. By publicizing how much electricity the average homeowner uses in a month, for example, energy wastrels can be prodded to turn off some lights.
An article in the latest Psychological Science -- nicely summarized here -- points out one problem with social-norms campaigns: After learning how they compare with others, people who drink less than the average, or use less electricity than their neighbors, are often inspired to change their behavior, too -- for the worse.
The authors of the Psychological Science article found a way to head off that problem, in a research project that examined the effects of social-norms messages on energy consumption. When homeowners who consumed less electricity than the average were straightforwardly informed what the average per household was, their energy consumption climbed the next month -- as predicted. When, however, energy-frugal homeowners got a symbolic pat on the head along with the information -- a simple smiley-face on their bill -- they continued their praiseworthy behavior.
On the other hand, presenting energy hogs with a frowning face didn't cause them to cut back their energy usage to any greater degree than did simply presenting them with the facts about what their peers were doing. The information alone was a rebuke.
The study suggests that many anti-binge-drinking campaigns -- like the one above, from Rutgers -- may need to be tweaked. Putting up posters isn't enough.
*It's not just students who don't know how much their peers drink. FYI, 80 percent of American men consume six or fewer alcoholic drinks a week, according to the Alcohol Research Group, at UC-Berkeley.