Saving energy: Personal biases in energy conservation
Shahzeen Attari, Elke Weber, Dave Krantz
This study investigates what individuals want to do to conserve energy (turn off lights/appliances) versus what they want others to do to conserve energy (drive less, carpool). Why Americans do not conserve energy and fail to adopt energy-efficient technologies even when the latter are cost neutral or can save money is a complicated psychological and structural puzzle. An obvious explanation is that people do not have enough information about their choice options. While there is evidence for some information deficits, there is also evidence that better informed energy consumers do not necessarily act in environmentally responsible ways. Here we are dealing with results from a national survey of 760 people that explored cognitive and motivational barriers to personal action. Participants described both the action that they could take themselves and the action that other Americans could take that would be most effective for decreasing energy consumption.
- Many participants chose the same action for themselves and for others. Where the choice differed, however, there was a strong tendency to list a less effective easier action for oneself and a more effective harder action for others. This finding displays a strong motivational deficit barrier to decreasing individual energy consumption.
- Both information deficit and motivated cognition are at work: people overestimate the effectiveness of easy actions, as compared with difficult ones, and often judge the difficult ones as not applicable to their lives.
- Judging an action effective and judging it applicable both contribute to self-reports of adopting that action (‘do it already’). But judged applicability and reported adoption both fall off as a function of mean difficulty judgment much more rapidly than judged effectiveness increases with difficulty. It seems likely that both information deficit and motivated cognition are at work here: people overestimate the effectiveness of easy actions, as compared with difficult ones, and judge the difficult ones as not applicable to their situations.
- Correct models of energy saving, showing what an individual should do based on their circumstance, are difficult to acquire and to use; and when models suggest a difficult action, it may seem more applicable for others than to oneself. A possible solution may lie in providing integrated plans for energy conservation that are scientifically well-founded, adaptable in the face of changing technology, and govern many aspects of behavior. Research should test whether such integrated plans, that both motivate and inform, are more appealing, more readily adopted, and more easily adhered to than piecemeal changes in behavior.
CRED2 Award (2010-2015): Funding was provided under the cooperative agreement NSF SES-0951516 awarded to the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions.