Psychologists and behavioral economists hope that our tendency to benchmark our own achievements using the performance of others might provide a way to encourage Americans to become better citizens. Can the fear of being below average persuade us to reduce our electricity consumption, increase our charitable contributions, and otherwise compete to be better citizens?
One problem with this approach is that we all define “better” differently, as a new study emphasizes. UCLA economists Dora Costa and Matthew Kahn analyzed the impact of an energy-conservation program in California that informed households about how their energy use compared with that of their neighbors. While the program succeeded in encouraging Democrats and environmentalists to lower their consumption, Republicans had the opposite reaction. When told of their relative thrift, they started cranking up the thermostat and leaving the lights on more often.
But this starts to sound an awful lot like fine-tuned social engineering, which gets us away from the original vision of simple nudges making a better world. And it starts to sound exactly like the type of heavy-handed governing that Republicans may be quietly rebelling against by turning up their thermostats