Observing the unobservable: a field experiment on early adopters of a climate-friendly behavior

Produced as part of the Incentives for behaviour change CCCEP research programme theme

Increasing the uptake of as yet non-normative (niche) behaviours is crucial to the sustainable energy transition. The authors of this paper test a novel approach to foster the diffusion of such climate-friendly behaviours. Their approach builds mainly on two observations. First, many non-normative climate-friendly behaviours – such as carbon offsetting, switching to renewable energy plans, and energy conservation – are ‘socially invisible’. Second, people are more likely to undertake behaviours that benefit society if they can be seen doing so by others, thereby generating social rewards.

From a large-scale study covering over 20,000 customers of a 100% renewable energy utility operating in England and Wales, the authors identified a usually invisible climate-friendly behaviour – signing up to a renewable energy tariff – and allowed households to publicise this using signs displayed in their gardens or stuck to their windows. In particular, the experiment was designed to test if households were intrinsically motivated to receive and display materials allowing them to showcase their climate-friendly behaviour, and if financial incentives crowd out or enhance such motivations.

A significant proportion of eligible customers enrolled themselves in the programme and reported using their window stickers and garden signs. Most importantly, both participation in the programme and the display behaviour were virtually the same whether or not financial incentives were given, suggesting that customers are intrinsically motivated to exhibit their climate-friendly behaviour. Indeed, a large majority of the sample customers reported that the main reason for displaying was to encourage others to adopt.

This novel research design has thus identified an untapped potential to spread the adoption of usually socially invisible climate-friendly behaviours and a vast opportunity to scale up niche behaviours by leveraging early adopters’ social motivations to improve the visibility of non-normative choices.

Key points for decision-makers

  • The authors conducted a large-scale field experiment, randomising 20,648 customers of a green energy utility to treatments that provided the option to make their invisible climate-friendly behaviours observable to passers-by with free garden signs and window stickers.
  • Treatments varied based on whether or not households were receiving a financial incentive to display their materials, overall randomising over five treatment arms.
  • Ten months after the start of the programme, participants were surveyed to understand if and why they had displayed the signs.
  • The rate of participation in the programme and displaying behaviour were virtually the same both in the presence and absence of financial incentives.
  • A vast majority of participants stated that their primary motivation in displaying the materials was to encourage others, too, to opt for a renewable energy supplier.