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Is today a good day to solve global warming?

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Maya is an environmentalist. She became a vegetarian at age 12. She composts. She buys organically. But the thing she is most proud of is reducing her energy bill. When you ask Maya how she was able to do this, Maya will tell you: her two kids.

She bet her two pre-teens that if they could help reduce the energy bill month over month, she would reward them with a bigger allowance. What happened?  If Maya left a room for an instant, one of her kids would come running and switch off the light. They became little agents of darkness.  It got to a point where Maya had to argue with them to leave the lights on during dinner.

Imagine another scenario where Maya asks her kids to help save the planet and turn off the lights as much as possible. While we didn’t do this experiment, we can imagine that her kids most likely wouldn’t have had the same fanatical love of darkness that they exhibited when teased with a larger allowance. When was the last time you saw a child compulsively checking rooms looking for errant lights because they wanted to “help planet earth?  But by creating a challenge, with a goal and rewards, Maya’s energy bill went down.

In another neighborhood, in the suburbs of Chicago, people started adopting CFL bulbs.  CFL bulbs, if widely adopted, could save the country hundreds of millions in energy costs.  There is one problem. People weren’t buying them.

Reducing cost may be one answer to increase adoption, but it’s currently not economically feasible. So researchers Uri Gneezy and John List started knocking on doors and telling Chicagoans that households in their area used CFL light bulbs.  The rate of adoption was the same as if they had dropped the price of the light bulbs by 70%. Did everyone in this town all of a sudden become an educated environmentalist overnight? No. But by creating a social norm with standards for behavior, this suburban town started saving more on their energy bill.

In both of these cases, people reduced their energy bill because of incentives that had nothing to do with being a good earthly citizen. In both of these cases, reasons to save energy were created that did not mention the word “global warming” or “environmentalism.”

So is today a good day to solve global warming? No. Today is never a good day to solve global warming. However, with the right reasons, we can help people make today a good day to take an action that will (don’t tell them) help solve global warming.

This phenomenon is what we call doing the right things for the wrong reasons.  Very often the reasons that people choose to do something that primarily has long term benefits is because of the short term incentive structure.   The incentives in these examples (an allowance and social esteem) were artificially created.  These “wrong reasons”  compel people to action in a way that just describing the benefits of doing the right thing do not.

So is today a good day to sign up for your product?  This depends. What “wrong reasons” can you create that will help people realize that today is the perfect day to sign up for your product?

Sources:

https://files.nyu.edu/ha32/public/research/Allcott%20and%20Rogers%20NBER%20WP%20-%20The%20Short-Run%20and%20Long-Run%20Effects%20of%20Behavioral%20Interventions.pdf

http://sites.duke.edu/selfhelp/project-elements/the-self-help-retail-branch-competiton/retail-bank-branch-competition-literature-review/

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