Culture is Critical


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Those of you who read this blog regularly are familiar with the tools of behavior-based energy efficiency: prompts, nudges, social norming. These concepts, which have emerged from the social sciences in recent years, have been deployed to persuade consumers to invest in energy efficiency, or to practice energy conservation. The most famous proponent of these in EE circles is Opower, which I like to call “part of a balanced breakfast.”

These tools are helpful, and it is fantastic that they have become standardized alongside traditional concepts such as incentives. However, like the cereal famously surrounded by grapefruit and bran muffins, so too is the picture still incomplete. In the first edition of the Field Guide to Utility-run Behavior Programs (ACEEE, 2013). I promoted the idea of “stacking” a variety of behavior-based interventions. The purpose of this is to touch upon and activate the different spheres of human behavior including rational calculation, emotional engagement, and social rewards. I still believe firmly in this model, but in today’s blog I want to go a little bit beyond that. In times of uncertainty and flux, there is an underutilized tool we can reach for, and that is culture change.

As an anthropologist who has been working in the sustainability arena for over 20 years and on energy specifically the last seven, I have been advocating for the use of “culture” to take its place alongside “behavior.” For one thing, when Opower discusses social norming, they are only a hairsbreadth away from tackling culture. Those outside of academia may think of culture as something large and monolithic, culture with a capital C. The word “culture” may evoke something ancient as in “the Mayan Culture” or far away like “Chinese culture.” But we all live in culture the way fish swim in water. Culture supports and nourishes us, mostly without us noticing.

It would take a lot more than this blog to unpack 200 plus years of philosophizing about “what is culture,” but one way to think about it is as the set of rules that program our behavior. Nudges and prompts help us in the moment, reminding us what the rules are, and how to enact them. Think of a sign in a formal restaurant reminding men to wear jackets and ties, and offering to provide them  if necessary. That is a prompt, a suggestion that “stimulates recall of the information or triggers the defined action.” However, underlying the entire enterprise is a cultural set of rules that tell us to set aside space for formal occasions, where the food and dress will be ritually specific. Over time these rules may change. Many of us have lived long enough to remember the horrid days of required pantyhose, for instance. In this case, the specific mode of behavior may have changed, but the cultural rule that different events need different dress codes still stands.

So how do you evoke culture change? One way is to spend time with people—preferably in their homes and/or workplaces—and observe their behavior firsthand. Ask them how they go about their lives. This allows the observer to acquire a sense of the rules that drive behavior, many of which are social in nature, rather than simply individualistic. For this reason, energy messaging needs to evolve to address households and other groupings.

Humans are social animals first, and our behavior orients toward others because we are never truly alone. The example I always give to illuminate this is, “Dead people do my grocery shopping.” What? That sounds crazy! But think about it for a second. Where did your purchase preferences come from? I still buy Life cereal and Hellman’s Mayonnaise, just like my grandparents did. Someone, somewhere 60 years ago made a brand purchase decision and it continues to reproduce, socially, across four generations (my son loves Life).

Energy behavior is social, and it is complex, mediated as it is by the goods and services we buy and use. Unlike the wizards in Harry Potter, none of us uses energy directly. So we have to look at the rules and norms that shape our consumption, and once we have a clearer grasp, we can provide new ones.

Susan Mazur-Stommen

Authored by Susan Mazur-Stommen

Susan Mazur-Stommen is the principal and founder of Indicia Consulting. As a cultural anthropologist she “wrote the book” on utility-based behavior change programs. Her client roster at Indicia Consulting includes the State of California, Bosch N.A., World Resources Institute, United States Department of Energy, and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories.