It takes more than just a poster to change behavior!

Blog | May 27, 2014 - 4:01 pm
By Kate Farley, Research Assistant

In my college dormitory, there was a large, bright poster in the basement laundry room. The poster encouraged us to always use the “cold” setting on the washing machine in order to save energy. It probably cited an EPA figure that 90% of energy used in laundry goes toward heating water. As an environmental science major, I dutifully used the cold cycle already, but I remember noticing that most of my classmates did not.

When trying to change behavior, posters alone don’t work.

The thought process behind poster campaigns probably goes something like this: People know that saving energy is a good thing, so we just have to teach them (or remind them) how to do it. If people would just read the posters, the logic goes, they would be persuaded to perform the recommended actions to save energy. In a building where tenants pay separately for hot water, the posters might rely on an economic argument, based on the idea that people will always act rationally to maximize their economic well-being, so all that would be needed is to let people know that washing in cold water saves money. But social science tells us that people are not always rational actors; and, in any case, the posters hanging in the laundry room clearly did not work on my classmates.

Posters and information campaigns in multifamily buildings can fail for a variety of reasons. In my college laundry room, part of the problem may have been that the poster was in the same place, unchanging, for three years straight. Maybe people stopped noticing it! Straight information campaigns often fail to address the real reasons people engage in unwanted behaviors. Off the top of my head, I would assume that most people who use hot water think it will make their clothes cleaner. But what if there was something else entirely that the poster campaign designers missed? In an environment like a college dorm or an apartment complex where people from many cultural backgrounds live, it is very likely that program designers haven’t thought about all the factors that contribute to people’s behavior. For example, any economic argument on my college’s laundry room posters was probably ignored because utility costs were bundled into our room and board fees. (One way program managers can address this kind of problem is to use Community Based Social Marketing, or CBSM.)

Behavior programs (like the laundry information campaign from my college years) are being run all over the country in apartment buildings, co-ops, and condominiums. In our new white paper, Saving Energy with Neighborly Behavior: Energy Efficiency for Multifamily Renters and Homebuyers​, we found that affordable housing providers are running many of these programs. We give an overview of the kinds of behavior-change initiatives that housing providers are engaging in right now. There’s a wide range of programs out there. Some of them are relatively simple information campaigns, comparable to those cold-water laundry posters. Other programs are much more complex; stacking elements like competitions and challenges, “green teams” of tenants who can influence their peers, and giveaways of LED light bulbs or smart power strips. Many of these programs don’t collect data on how much energy tenants save as a result of their efforts, so we can’t definitively say that more complex programs yield better results compared to information campaigns. However, over the course of our research, the program managers we interviewed reported that programs with elements like green teams or contests tend to have higher participation rates in their experience.

Having a poster is a good start. But you need to do more than that to convince people to really change their behavior.