Competition vs. Goal Setting in Energy Conservation

Energy conservation is an important part of building a sustainable future, but how do you encourage others to conserve? Especially when, like university students living on campus, they don’t have the financial incentive to reduce their energy bill? According to Doug McKenzie-Mohr, incentives should be used when there is a lack of motivation, as a way to offset the costs associated with a particular behaviour change. Incentives includes both encouraging a positive behaviour and discouraging a negative behaviour.

Competition as an incentive

One type of incentive is to have individuals, or certain flats/floors to compete for the largest energy reduction, with the winner getting a prize. This option is very popular with environmental campaigns, and can be effective.

Energy competitions can be derailed by these two things:

  • Not having the right “teams”. McMakin et al. (2002), found in his study that the competition was not successful because individuals did have a shared identity and therefore didn’t care about working together or doing better than the other groups. Furthermore, there was hostility when certain members don’t pull their weight.
  • Getting the right measurement: McClelland & Cook (1980) found that energy competitions can be very difficult to organize due to measurement. Because there are so many factors that can cause fluctuations in energy use, such as building design and measurement technology, it can be difficult to compare differences between houses.

Goal-setting to build motivation

If these two factors are proving difficult, there is another way that individuals could be motivated: goal setting. By having individuals work together towards a common goal, there are additional benefits, such as fostering a positive social identity (Bekker et al., 2010). By emphasizing a common group identity, a group can achieve more cooperative behaviour and improved performance (McMakin et al., 2002).Goal setting gives individuals a reference point for energy savings in the form of a percentage decrease in energy use (Van Houwelingen & Van Riaaj, 1989). Rather than having a comparison between themselves and others, goal-setting allows individuals a comparison between their own behaviour in the present and future (Van Houwelingen & Riaaj, 1989).

In order to create a successful goal-oriented intervention, consider the following:

  • Set challenging goals: Van Houwelingen & Riaaj (1989), found that easy goals (i.e. 2%) are not effective. Although a goal of 20% may only lead to a 15% savings, it will yield higher results than a lower goal.
  • Pair goals with feedback: Feedback allows participants to see how they are performing and adjust their behaviours throughout an intervention. This combination makes interventions much more effective and is essential to achieve a challenging goal (Van Houwelingen & Riaaj, 1989).
Who should set the goals?

As usual, it depends. There is no evidence as to whether goals should be set by participants or organizers of the intervention. However when measured against social value orientation, it was found that pro-self individuals conserve more energy when the goal is set for them, whereas pro-social individuals performed better when they were allowed to make their own goals (Abrahamse et al., 2005). I wonder how that fits into the value-modes model?

Final Thoughts

There are some awesome organizations working with competition, goal-setting and feedback to help individuals reduce their energy use, such as Opower and Project Neutral, and if you are interested in energy conservation and demand-side management, I suggest you check them out. To design a good campaign, audience insight should help determine which of these tools, if either, would be more appropriate for your intervention. Personally, I would love to see some more studies on the long-term effects of both strategies compared side-by-side, though of course it is hard enough to even get a study on long-term effects of just one. Once you have that all wrapped up I guarantee you will get published. And send me a copy, just so I can know!



Alison Carlyle is an environmental enthusiast studying social marketing at the University of Brighton. She had two chocolate muffins after dinner and is therefore in a good mood, so if you have bad news this is the time. Follow her on Twitter orLinkIn with her.

Abrahamse, W., Steg, L., Vlek, C. & Rothengatter, T. (2005) A Review of Intervention Studies Aimed at Household Energy Conservation, Journal of Environmental Psychology. [Online], Vol 25 (Issue 3). Available at <; [Accessed 1 February 2016]

Bekker, M., Cumming, T., Osborne, N., Bruining, A., McClean, J., Leland, L. (2010) Encouraging Electricity Saving in a University Residential Hall Through a Combination of Feedback, Visual Prompts and Incentives, Journal of Applied Behavioural Sciences. [Online], Vol 2 (Issue 43). Available at <; [Accessed 31 January 2016]

McClelland, L., & Cook, S. W. (1980) Promoting Energy Conservation in Master-Metered Apartments Through Group Financial Incentives, Journal of Applied Social Psychology, Vol 10. Available at <; [Accessed 10 February 2016]

McMakin, A., Malone, E. & Lundgren, R. (2002) Motivating Residents to Conserve Energy Without Financial Incentives, Environment and Behaviour. [Online], Vol 34 (Issue 6). Available at <; [Accessed 16 February 2016]

Van Houwelingen, J. & Van Raaij, F. (1989) The Effect of Goal-Setting and Daily Electronic Feedback on In-Home Energy Use, Journal of Consumer Research [Online], Vol 16. Available at <; [Accessed 10 February 2016]

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