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Think you're better than others at saving energy? 3 charts suggest you may need a reality check.

Are you smarter than average? Are you more compassionate than other people? Are you more concerned about the environment? You probably answer “yes” to these statements. And guess what? So does everyone else.

The well documented "Illusory Superiority" effect — also known as the Lake Wobegon Effect or the better-than-average effect — describes how most people think their skills and abilities are better than those of others, even though, by definition, it's not actually possible for everyone to be better than average. In reality, for most population distributions, about half of people are worse than average and half are better than average.

But we're motivated to feel good about ourselves — especially when it comes to our abilities and values. This phenomenon has been demonstrated in a range of domains, including cognitive abilities, health, and even operating a vehicle. In one commonly cited study, about 80% of people rate themselves above-average drivers. The effect has been widely documented in US, Europe, and Asia, but in few regions beyond that. Moreover, little research has focused on the illusory superiority effect as it relates to energy and the environment. In our latest round of international research, we looked to the Middle East, Latin America, and Eastern Europe — where we asked utility customers how their environmental concerns, efforts, and behaviors compare to those of their communities. What we found was interesting. A majority of customers in these regions report that they're concerned with the environment and they make efforts to reduce energy use. But what was even more interesting was a surprisingly consistent "Illusory Superiority" effect. When respondents were asked how they perform on environmental and energy behavior, they consistently said they're better than their peers.

 

Better on Environmental Concerns

For starters, most respondents in all three regions believe that they are better than everyone else when it comes to environmental concern.

Illusory Superiority: Environment

 

Better on Making an Effort to Save Energy

We also found that most respondents believe they make more of an effort to save energy than everyone else does.

Illusory Superiority: Effort to Save

 

Better at Actually Reducing Energy Use

And most respondents report that they are better at actually reducing energy use than others are.

Illusory Superiority: Reducing Energy Use

 

These findings are interesting to us for three reasons: First, they tell us that behavioral science findings from the US are likely to hold up in vastly different cultures around the world. Culture is definitely important, but basic human nature doesn't change that much from one place to another. Second, they tell us that many people do care about the environment and believe saving energy is a good thing. If it weren't a desirable value or behavior, we probably wouldn't see people so readily inflate their own efforts and concern relative to others. Third, this research provides some insight into why behavioral approaches, and normative comparison in particular, may work so well in driving energy savings. Think about it this way: people's reported beliefs represent what they would like to think about themselves. They would like to believe that they are effective energy conservers and do care about the environment. But when faced with the reality of using more energy than average (see below for an example reality check from an Opower Home Energy Report), people may be forced to reconcile the image of who they would like to be with who they actually are. In social psychology, this phenomenon is often called "self-discrepancy."

 

Screen Shot 2014-04-16 at 9.48.44 AM

 

This apparent discrepancy between the actual self (made apparent through the Home Energy Report) and the ideal self who customers would like to be (as evidenced by their reported beliefs) may increase motivation to save energy. And when this motivation is accompanied by the provision of personalized energy efficiency advice that people can easily act upon (also provided via Home Energy Reports), the result is verifiable energy savings. So what does it all mean? Most energy consumers across the globe are overconfident about their performance in saving energy. A data-driven reality check — via behavioral efficiency tools like Home Energy Reports — can go a long way toward putting people on the path to being the savvy energy consumers they would like to be.

Julie O'Brien leads international consumer research at Opower. She holds a PhD in Social Psychology from the University of Maryland.

Methodology: This research was conducted via an online panel survey of customers from five countries in Latin America, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe with a total sample of 4,500. Respondents were representative of national populations with access to internet in terms of age, income, education, and location. The survey covered a range of topics relating to energy service expectations and satisfaction, energy and environmental attitudes, and cultural norms. Data Privacy: All data analyzed here are anonymous and treated in strict adherence to Opower's Data Principles. Author's note: The analysis and commentary presented above solely reflect the views of the author(s) and do not reflect the views of Opower's utility partners. Header image credit: Ryan Somma/Flickr

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