The California drought has given way to a prevalent new phenomenon of “drought shaming” – Californians have taken to social media to snitch on each other’s water-wasting habits. If you search #droughtshaming on Twitter, you will find hundreds of people calling out their neighbors for wasting water and posting pictures of the infraction. Some water agencies have even built apps to make it easy for residents to tattle on each other. While this is one approach to raising awareness about water use, I would argue that turning drought into a finger-pointing game is not the right reaction. WaterSmart’s behavioral science approach of using social comparison to encourage conservation has sometimes been conflated with drought shaming; Environmental Leader called it a “shame program” earlier this year.
Drought shaming and social comparison do have some distinctive similarities. Both take advantage of the innate human instinct to fit in with the crowd, to adhere to behavior that is considered “normal.” Both aim, as Water Efficiency Magazine loquaciously described it, to “help heavy water users avoid the stigma of being profligate squanderers of the community aquifer.” No one wants to be the neighbor who is seen as a bad actor. However, drought shaming and the behavioral tools of social comparison are not the same thing. So, what is the difference?
Think of it this way – social comparison is the carrot, and drought shaming is the stick. Social comparison nudges residents to be more water-wise through subtle normative signals (such as a bar chart comparing their use to the neighborhood average), providing a sense of satisfaction in seeing improvement and in “fitting in” when you reduce water usage. Drought shaming has no reward mechanism; it is a purely negative motivator. Any impetus to modify behavior comes from the desire to avoid negative consequences rather than to attain positive ones. Social comparison is anonymous – it provides you with aggregated data that explains how you are performing compared to a group of other users with similar traits. It doesn’t say “Mrs. Jones is doing better than you, take it up with her.” It doesn’t plaster your name or a picture of your front yard on social media with a snarky caption.
In the repertoire of approaches for getting people to save water, research has shown the behavioral technique of social norm comparison to be effective. Drought shaming, while cathartic for frustrated neighbors and perhaps a legitimately effective way to raise awareness of water waste, is unproven and unlikely to motivate any significant or persistent changes in behavior.
The problem with drought shaming is that there is no frame of reference for what the ‘right’ behavior looks like. All of these people are calling out water wasters on Twitter, but what about their own use? The key to a successful social comparison is a relative framework. It’s not that you are necessarily “doing badly” it’s “your neighbors are doing better than you.” Social comparison makes efficiency a competition. It tells water wasters, here is what is normal use in your peer group, and you don’t measure up. It is gamification; it targets our intrinsic desire to be a part of the tribe. This increases efficiency across the board via incremental competition.
Social comparison also helps people to overcome the problem of psychological denial, something to which we, as humans, are all occasionally prone (“I’m fine, I don’t use that much water…”). It keeps us in check. As the New York Times put it, “Sometimes we’re mentally lazy, or stressed, or we’re influenced by social pressure and unconscious biases. It’s possible to take advantage of these features to enact change.” Taking these subconscious pressures into account, social comparisons address and capitalize on the oft-fickle spirit of human nature in a way that holds all parties responsible – you and your neighbor.