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Being watched makes electricity users consume less

Posted September 9, 2013

Credit: Wikipedia

The Hawthorne effect is a concept whereby subjects modify and change their behavior in response to the fact that they know they are being studied. A team from Carnegie Mellon have applied this phenomenon to the question of whether people might change their energy savings habits for the better if they are aware they are being watched. The findings, reported in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), are that people use less energy when they believe they are being watched. In turn, energy consumption can be reduced if people are told they are participating in a study.

In preparing their research for the paper, “The Hawthorne Effect and Energy Awareness,” Daniel Schwartz and colleagues partnered with a mid-Atlantic utility company in 2011. The researchers chose 5600 households, which were randomly selected. Half served as the control group, none of whom knew that a study was going on.

The other half were told by postcard they had been chosen to participate in a one-month study. They knew the study was about electricity use, but they were not required to take any actions and they were not given any special incentives.

They were sent four more postcards reminding them of the study. The study results: Households that were told about the study cut their electricity consumption by 2.7 percent during the study month.

“We find evidence for a ‘pure’ (study participation) Hawthorne effect in electricity use,” the authors wrote. “Residential consumers who received weekly postcards informing them that they were in a study reduced their monthly use by 2.7%—an amount greater than the annual conservation goal currently mandated by any state.”

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