Many of us recognize that a large part of the solution to environmental problems lies in getting people to change their behavior. Unfortunately, altering the habits of the human animal can be especially challenging—we are intelligent but we can also be irrational and our age-old tendency to focus on immediate needs frequently overrides our ability to think, plan and act longer-term.
That topic was addressed during a briefing co-sponsored last week by Discover Magazine and the National Science Foundation. The ninth part of a briefing series on the science and engineering needed to meet the energy goals of the United States, the May 23 briefing focused on the psychology of the energy choices we make.
Since human behavior causes environmental and economic problems, it stands to reason that changes in human behavior are needed to address them, said Elke Weber, one of the speakers at the briefing. Weber is director of Columbia University’s Center for Research on Environmental Decisions, one of NSF’s Decision Research Centers that focus on better understanding how we make decisions, particularly about long-term environmental risks. Weber’s work includes looking at obstacles that prevent people from doing things that would lead to energy conservation. In spite of the demonstrated personal cost savings of adopting energy-efficient technology, we don’t fully take advantage of them. Why? According to Weber, we may be fearful of new technology or perceive that our energy savings will be too small. And, we tend to heavily discount future savings, especially when they require an initial large, upfront cost.
Weber explained that while our short-term goals are automatically activated, getting our long-term goals activated is challenging and requires paying attention to social, cultural and other contexts. For example, she said, labels matter. Calling something a carbon “tax” has a negative connotation for many people. Calling that same thing a carbon “offset” is a more positive label to which most people respond to more favorably. The setting in which people make their choices are also influential. Whether people are making energy-provider choices alone at home or in a community meeting can make a big difference.
A member of the audience picked up on Weber’s cultural reference, noting that social norms among different groups may be wasting energy, yet be difficult to change. For example, law offices may intentionally leave the lights burning at night to give the appearance that someone is there working—even if no one is. Weber’s response: devise substitutions that will work for a particular group that are less wasteful but still achieve the community’s goal.
Weber offered an interesting possibility for the future. She said that perhaps one day, a large energy company might provide customers with a service, such as refrigeration. That is, the company would supply the energy-efficient product, replacing it as needed, and consumers would pay for the service, better enabling the company to manage the service during peak energy periods.