Infographic of the Day: U.S. Census Turns to Peer Pressure Tactics

The U.S. Census Bureau is publishing return rates by zip code. Can peer pressure really be a strong motivator to action?

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As any behavioral economist can tell you, peer pressure can be a wonderful thing. For example: Some smart-grid start-ups are using peer pressure to get people to slash their energy consumption. And now the U.S. Census is getting on on the act, with an interactive infographic that lets you track census response rates down to the zip code. The idea being that you'll be so moved to beat your zip code's 2000 response rate that you'll fill out your form and send it back.

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Which is all pretty interesting--but it kind of misses the way peer pressure actually seems to work. Who's really interested in competing against the 2000 response rate? Companies that use peer pressure effectively rely on beating other people you know: For example, oPower, a smart-grid company, publishes energy efficiency in your neighborhood. Moreover, a response rate is binary for individuals: You either did it, or you didn't. As an individual, you can't do a 77% response.

Then again, the site serves as a reminder that the census is out there--response rates are still quite low, so far. And it also reminds you that census responses, in general, are quite high. Would you ever guess that over 75% of New Yorkers fill theirs out?! That's peer pressure of another sort: (Almost) everyone is doing it. So why aren't you?

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