Real-time feedback reduces energy consumption among the broader public without financial incentives

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Hotel guests changed their resource-use behaviour when they received feedback on their consumption in real time, even though they did not know that they were part of a study and had no financial incentives. Behavioural interventions provided by digital technologies are a scalable and cost-effective policy instrument for fostering resource conservation.

Messages for policy

  • Real-time feedback can be a scalable and cost-effective instrument for fostering resource conservation among the broader public.

  • Real-time feedback should be provided on the environmental impact of a specific activity (rather than on aggregate household electricity use), focusing on selected energy-intensive domains.

  • Public facilities such as schools, public transportation, or universities should be equipped with metering devices that can provide activity-specific feedback in real time.

  • Environmental motives alone are an effective driver of resource conservation, hence sustainability campaigns do not need to focus on financial benefits.

BASED ON V. Tiefenbeck et al. Nature Energy (2019).

The policy problem

It is difficult for consumers to establish a link between a specific activity and its impact on energy consumption. Feedback interventions are viewed as promising behaviour change strategies to establish this link and ultimately to foster energy conservation. The anticipated savings effects have been a driver for the rollout of smart electricity meters to millions of households. However, while early studies based on small samples of volunteer participants reported encouraging savings effects, large programmes providing aggregate feedback on household energy use to a broader population have delivered only modest savings. This raises the question whether the small effects are an inherent problem of feedback interventions in rollouts without self-selection effects, or if the small savings effects result from the unspecific, aggregated feedback provided by today’s installations.

The findings

Hotel guests who received real-time feedback on the energy consumed while showering used 11.4% (0.21 kWh) less energy per shower than hotel guests in a control group. The results are important for two reasons. First, they indicate that real-time feedback on a specific activity can induce large behaviour change and resource savings among the broader population and not only among the kind of people who volunteer to participate in energy conservation studies. Second, participants had no financial motives for behaviour change (hotel guests pay a fixed room rate). Even in this setting, the digital behavioural intervention created large conservation effects.

Two potential caveats remain. First, we do not know how representative the behaviour of hotel guests is for the tested behaviour compared to the general population. Second, we cannot measure long-term behaviour in a hotel setting. However, in other experiments that we conducted with households over several months, conservation effects from real-time feedback were stable.

The study

We conducted a ‘natural field experiment’ — a study in a real-world setting with ordinary people who do not know that they are participating in an experiment and who thus are not pre-selected by actively opting in. We installed smart shower meters (Fig. 1) that measured the energy and water consumption of every shower taken in 265 rooms at six Swiss hotels. We assigned the rooms randomly to two groups: while guests in most rooms received real-time feedback on their resource consumption and saw an image of a polar bear on a shrinking ice floe while using the shower (‘treatment group’), 40% of the smart shower meters displayed only water temperature to guests who served as a control group. We then compared the energy (and water) use per shower of the two groups. The hotel setting also allowed us to study how individuals respond to real-time feedback on their resource consumption in a setting where they have zero financial incentives for conserving resources.

Fig. 1: Smart shower meter.

Amphiro AG (b,c)

a, The smart shower meter for displaying real-time feedback on resource consumption to hotel guests was installed between the shower head and the shower hose. b, Two snapshots of the treatment group’s display. c, The control group’s display.


    Further Reading

    1. Tiefenbeck, V. et al. Overcoming salience bias: how real-time feedback fosters resource conservation. Manage Sci. 64, 983–1476 (2018). Activity-specific real-time feedback increases the salience of resource consumption and fosters large conservation effects.

    2. Tiefenbeck, V. Bring behaviour into the digital transformation. Nat. Energy 2, 17085 (2017). Smart technologies in the energy sector could benefit from social science research — and vice versa.

    3. Allcott, H. & Mullainathan, S. Behavior and energy policy. Science 327, 1204–1205 (2010). Energy consumption is not solely dependent on technology, but strongly influenced by consumption patterns of consumers as well.

    4. Wörner, A. & Tiefenbeck, V. The role of self-set goals in IS-enabled behavior change. In Proc. 26th European Conference on Information Systems (ECIS2018) 10 (AISeL, 2018). Real-time feedback induces individuals to define self-set goals for resource consumption.

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    Funding for the original work was provided by the MTEC foundation of ETH Zurich (data analysis) as well as by Swiss Mobiliar insurance (hardware, deployment).

    Author information

    Correspondence to Verena Tiefenbeck.

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    Competing interests

    V.T., A.W. and E.F. declare no competing financial interests. T.S. and S.S. are co-founders of and hold shares in Amphiro AG, the small to medium enterprise that manufactures the smart shower meters. T.S. and S.S. were not involved in the data analysis, hotel selection or room assignment.

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    Tiefenbeck, V., Wörner, A., Schöb, S. et al. Real-time feedback reduces energy consumption among the broader public without financial incentives. Nat Energy 4, 831–832 (2019) doi:10.1038/s41560-019-0480-5

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