The paper is published in the journal Nature Energy
. The co-authors are Kimberly Wolske
, a research associate and assistant professor at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy, and P. Wesley Schultz
, a professor of psychology at California State University, San Marcos.
In the paper, the authors review existing scholarship conducted across many disciplines — including economics, marketing, sociology, and psychology — on the influence of peer effects. Across these different fields, they write, researchers have found a basic tendency for the energy-related behaviors of individuals to be influenced by members of a peer group; sometimes this influence is an even more important factor than cost or convenience.
For instance, several studies have demonstrated that the chances of an individual deciding to install solar panels increases as more panels are installed in their neighborhood or region. (One study calculated that for each additional installation in one California zip code, the probability of another increased by 0.78 percentage points.)
To better understand why this happens, the authors took a closer look at two areas of research on peer influence:
Interpersonal communication and persuasion, which can include observation of energy choices (such as seeing solar panels on a neighbor’s roof), word-of-mouth communication, and the influence of trusted community leaders.
Normative social influence, in which social norms are passively communicated as shared standards that constrain or guide the behavior within a group.
The authors find the extent to which peer influence affects behavior depends on several factors. These include characteristics of the individual in question (how much have they previously considered a behavior?), the strength of their relationship with their peers, how the individual learns from peer behavior (for example, through conversation, observation, or social comparison), and the depth at which the learned information is processed. “Based on our review of the literature, we hypothesize that certain combinations of these processes are more likely to lead to peer effects in energy than others, depending on the targeted behavior,” they write.
For instance, they expect that peer behavior has minimal impact when an individual already has strong beliefs about the behavior in question. If they don’t have strong opinions, peer influence can be more powerful.