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Project 11.6. Mobilizing Households for a Sustainable Energy Transition

CHALLENGE 11: IDENTITY FLEXIBILITY AND SUSTAINABLE COOPERATION 

Aim of the project

Understanding the conditions under which residents can be successfully mobilized to partake in the energy transition by promoting sustainable cooperation in neighborhoods. 

Theoretical background

For the Netherlands to be able to reach their climate goals, as agreed upon in the Paris Climate Accord, Dutch residents have to transition away from the use of natural gas, which is key to realise "the energy transition". For a large part, this requires that individuals residing in existing buildings using natural gas agree to significant changes to their homes required for switching them over to a sustainable energy alternative. Existing policy approaches are based on the provision of information and financial incentives (e.g. subsidies) to encourage this transition. The present project explores a novel alternative approach that relies on social influence (Steg, 2016). This approach has its origins in sociology and network science (Granovetter 1973; Centola & Macy 2007) and involves the deliberate initiation and catalyzation of a social diffusion process: A policymaker helps to propagate pro-transition behavior through local social networks connecting residents. The idea is that a sufficient policy shock, combining financial incentives with social influence, can disrupt the existing vicious cycle in which the inertia among neighbors reinforces one’s own inertia, by setting in motion a positive feedback loop of behavior. In this way, we aim at moving whole neighborhoods to a new equilibrium state based on more environmentally sustainable consumption patterns.

Research design

This project integrates theoretical approaches with roots in psychology, sociology and network science that harness the power of social influence for energizing sustainable behavior. Empirically, the project combines observational studies of centrally organized renewable energy initiatives with laboratory and field experiments that systematically vary institutional conditions. In each case, of interest is the extent to which conditions convincing residents of apartment buildings or neighborhoods to jointly agree on an energy transition away from the use of gas. Field studies among citizens of municipalities promoting renewable energy transitions will test effects of institutions that strengthen group norms of sustainable consumption and network propagation of such norms. In lab studies we examine the network and institutional conditions that can promote such groups norms and propagate related behaviors. Finally, in field experiments, we seek to jumpstart cascades of transition behavior in residential blocks, schools, and religious organizations. This facilitates studying how top-down policy approaches can use existing social network structures to sustainably change individuals behavior and facilitate sustainable cooperation such that all individuals in the social network contribute more to general environmental goals.

Literature                                                   

Centola, D., & Macy, M. (2007). Complex Contagions and the Weakness of Long Ties. American Journal of Sociology, 113(3), 702-734.

Granovetter, M. S. (1973). The Strength of Weak Ties. American Journal of Sociology, 78(6), 1360-1380.

Steg, L. (2016). Values, norms and intrinsic motivation to act proenvironmentally. Annual Review of Environment and Resources, 41, 277-292. doi: 10.1146/annurev-environ-110615-085947.

Project initiators

Vincent Buskens (UU), Linda Steg (RUG), Arnout van de Rijt (UU)

Location

Utrecht

Expertise

Sociology, Psychology

How to Apply

For background information on this vacancy and further instructions, click here (portal opens June 1).

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