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The critical role of second-order normative beliefs in predicting energy conservation


Sustaining large-scale public goods requires individuals to make environmentally friendly decisions today to benefit future generations1,2,3,4,5,6. Recent research suggests that second-order normative beliefs are more powerful predictors of behaviour than first-order personal beliefs7,8. We explored the role that second-order normative beliefs—the belief that community members think that saving energy helps the environment—play in curbing energy use. We first analysed a data set of 211 independent, randomized controlled trials conducted in 27 US states by Opower, a company that uses comparative information about energy consumption to reduce household energy usage (pooled N = 16,198,595). Building off the finding that the energy savings varied between 0.81% and 2.55% across states, we matched this energy use data with a survey that we conducted of over 2,000 individuals in those same states on their first-order personal and second-order normative beliefs. We found that second-order normative beliefs predicted energy savings but first-order personal beliefs did not. A subsequent pre-registered experiment provides causal evidence for the role of second-order normative beliefs in predicting energy conservation above first-order personal beliefs. Our results suggest that second-order normative beliefs play a critical role in promoting energy conservation and have important implications for policymakers concerned with curbing the detrimental consequences of climate change.

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Data availability

The data set containing household energy savings from 211 large-scale RCTs is Opower’s propriety data and may not currently be shared publicly. To inquire about access to the proprietary Opower data, please get in touch with J.D.O. (jdpobrien@gmail.com). The survey response data collected on AMT is available on the Open Science Framework: https://osf.io/jaz4w.

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Publisher’s note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.


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We are grateful to N. Castelo, K. Duke, F. Cushman, H. Foster, J. Greene, G. Kraft-Todd, E. U. Weber and L. Zaval for helpful feedback, and the Center for Decision Sciences at Columbia University, the Behavioral Insights Group at Harvard University and the German Academic Merit Foundation for funding. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript.

Author information

J.D.O. and E.S. oversaw the Opower data collection. J.M.J. and O.P.H. analysed the data, designed the online experiment and wrote the manuscript. J.D.O., E.S. and A.D.G. provided critical revisions. All authors approved the final version of this manuscript.

Competing interests

J.D.O. and E.S. previously worked at Opower. The remaining authors declare no competing interests.

Correspondence to Jon M. Jachimowicz.

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Supplementary Methods, Supplementary Results, Supplementary Figure 1, Supplementary Tables 1–5

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Further reading

Fig. 1: An example of an Opower Home Energy Report.
Fig. 2: Second-order normative beliefs predict energy savings in 211 large-scale energy savings RCTs.
Fig. 3: Information given to all participants about their energy consumption in the experimental study.