Rank And Response: A Field Experiment On Peer Information And Water Use Behavior

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Journal Of Economic Psychology


Perception of peer rank, or how we perform relative to our peers, can be a powerful motivator. While research exists on the effect of social information on decision making, there is less work on how ranked comparisons with our peers influence our behavior. This paper outlines a field experiment conducted with 3896 households in Castro Valley, California, which uses household mailers with various forms of social information and peer rank messaging to motivate water conservation. The experiment tests the effect of a visible peer rank on water use, and how the competitive framing of rank information influences behavioral response. The results show that households with relatively low or high water use in the pre-treatment period responded differently to how rank information was framed. I find that a neutrally-framed peer rank caused a small “boomerang effect” (i.e., an increase in average water use) for low water use households, but this effect was eliminated by competitive framing. At the same time, a competitively-framed peer rank demotivated high water use households, increasing their average water use over the full period of the experiment. This result is supported by evidence that the competitive frame on rank information increased water use for households who ranked “last” in the peer group – a detrimental “last place effect” from competitively-framed rankings.


social norms, field experiment, rank, peer information, motivation


A previous version of this paper has been made freely available courtesy of the author.

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