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Shame, anger, guilt and fear… because of a smart meter?

September 23, 2014 - Arguments over whose turn it is to clean up, negotiating access to the TV remote and disputes over noise... sharing a house with other university students can be a tricky business, and new research from The University of Nottingham suggests energy monitoring technology in the home could turn up the tension dial to 11.

September 24, 2014  By  Anthony Capkun

A study by a team of technology experts and psychologists found that meters that allows residents to look at both communal and individuals’ energy use could lead to feelings of shame and anger, potentially creating conflict.

“Importantly, beyond simple effects on energy use, we were interested in how these displays influenced emotions and the interactions that people had around them,” explained Dr. Caroline Leygue from the university’s Horizon Digital Economy Research. “For example, if people saw that someone used more than their fair share of energy […] they felt more anger, or guilt and fear… not the intended consequence of installing an energy display!”

Smart meters aim to help people to see how much energy they are using and how much it costs with the aim of encourage them to use less. However, the Nottingham researchers note there has been little research into how the smart meters might change behaviour, particularly in homes of multiple-occupancy—despite the fact that less than 30% of homes in the U.K. are inhabited by only one person.

The Nottingham research randomly placed volunteers into one of two theoretical scenarios: one in which they all split the energy bill but one or more people used more than their fair share (free-riding), and another in which the energy is used equally in the household.

Both scenarios depicted a situation in which the study participant shared a house with three other people that he or she did not know. In the equal-split scenario, it was explained that each person paid £20 each toward the bill, while in the free-riding scenario the energy display showed that more energy was used by one or more people, yet the bill was still equally divided with each housemate paying £35.

Within the scenarios, participants were shown one of three types of smart meter displays that, to a varying degree, could identify which housemates were using more than their fair share. They then had to answer a series of questions about the scenarios, their reactions to the situation and how much energy they were likely to use in the future.

The results showed that the more information people had on the display about their other housemates’ usage, the more angry they became and wanted to punish those who used too much.

More than one-third of participants said they would call a house meeting to discuss the issue, while almost 1/4 said they would make sure the free-rider would pay more in proportion to the energy they had used. More than 1/5 of participants said they would confront the person using more electricity and ask them to reduce their electricity use.

No one said they would ostracize the free-rider; just 1.8% of participants said they would gossip about the free-rider with other housemates, and 0.8% would elect to do nothing.

In situations where only an average energy use display was used, people were more likely to feel fearful and guilty, which was also associated with an intention to reduce their own energy use. They were also more likely to use a more conciliatory approach when dealing with a situation in which an unidentified housemate had used more energy, such as asking all housemates to switch off appliances when not using them.

The research has important implications for the design of future domestic smart meters, say the researchers. It shows that average energy display smart meters are more effective in encouraging people to reduce their energy use. In a situation where one housemate (who cannot be easily identified) is using more than their fair share of energy, it leads to negative emotions that could cause anger and conflict in the household.

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