Nudging People to Combat Climate Change

Which psychological hurdles are standing in the way of improved energy efficiency in this country? Researchers are coming up with some compelling answers—and innovative strategies.

  • Peter Aldhous
  • May 14, 2010
FOR SEVERAL MONTHS NOW, Janet Swim has set aside one day a week when she doesn’t drive her car to the office, cutting her emissions from personal transportation by about 20 percent during the work week. “I realize now that I should tell more people about what I’m doing,” she says. “That could encourage others to do the same.”

This is no idle assertion. Swim studies the psychology of influence and how it can help people reduce their contributions to climate change. A Pennsylvania State University professor, she co-chaired an American Psychological Association task force that last August released a report detailing the psychological hurdles standing in the way of improved energy efficiency in this country. “You can get people to do environmentally friendly behaviors for other reasons,” she says. “By staying home and not driving one day a week, for example, I also get a lot of work done without interruptions.”

One of the main barriers to reducing energy use, the task force reported, is that consumers do not have enough information. Providing people with smart meters and other displays showing energy consumption in real time allows homeowners to see how adjusting their thermostats or unplugging appliances left on standby can make a real difference.

Psychologists are now examining how to amplify these gains in efficiency by drawing on our competitive instincts. Every spring, student dormitories at Oberlin College in Ohio compete to cut the most energy. Computer screens give the students detailed, real-time feedback on electricity consumption, and in one study dorms cut their electricity use by 55 percent during the competition. “Information is good, but it has to be paired with motivation,” says Cindy Frantz, an Oberlin psychologist who helped devise the scheme. “The competition component is crucial.”

John Petersen, Oberlin’s head of environmental studies, is now teaming up with the Alliance to Save Energy and the Lucid Design Group in California (which produces the computer displays) to take the competition national. That should happen in 2011, and Petersen is excited by the prospect of engaging schools that have keen sporting rivalries—hopefully taking the message of energy efficiency to a new audience. “People who are most excited about competition in athletics may not otherwise be excited about conservation,” Petersen explains. “We’ll be asking: Why don’t you whoop their butts when it comes to conserving resources?”

As much as people like to compete, they also like to fit in with others in their community, and this urge is emerging as a force for conservation. Research led by Wesley Schultz at California State University–San Marcos, Robert Cialdini of Arizona State University and Jessica Nolan, now at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania, has found that people will cut their electricity usage if told that their neighbors use less than they do. “It’s a desire to be informed as to what is appropriate by what others are doing,” says Cialdini.

In one study of households in San Marcos, the researchers told residents how much energy other people in their neighborhood used on average. The information inspired high-energy users to cut their consumption, but it also caused miserly users to increase the usage. This problem seemed to disappear when residents received messages reinforced with images of sad or smiley faces. The smileys sent to residents who already were saving energy apparently provided the encouragement needed for them to keep doing so.

These findings are now being put into wider practice by a Virginia-based company called OPower, which is providing unique home energy reports and other tools for six of the nation’s ten largest utilities. With advice from Cialdini, OPower redesigns electricity bills to include comparisons with average consumption by neighbors, energy-saving tips and smiley or frowning faces similar to those used in the San Marcos experiments. To date, the strategy has produced a 2.5 percent reduction in domestic electricity use by consumers receiving the information. With the roll-out of smart meters that can provide households with real-time information on their electricity usage, OPower president Alex Laskey expects to achieve even larger savings.

Meanwhile, graduate student Tawanna Dillahunt and her colleagues at the Human-Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon University are studying the effects of using the poster child of global warming as a motivational tool. They have designed a computerized “virtual polar bear” on an ice floe that gets bigger as people adopt environmentally friendly behaviors such as taking shorter showers, but shrinks if they fail to meet their online pledges. In initial experiments, the animation seemed to help people follow through on their commitments, if first they read a story describing the effects of climate change on polar bears.

The team’s animated polar bear family now appears on a website used by Dartmouth University students and another called StepGreen, where volunteers can sign up to take personal actions to protect the environment. The next step, which will be tested on the Carnegie Mellon campus, is using automated sensors to verify whether people are fulfilling such promises as agreeing to turn off lights when leaving an office.

Will the use of automated sensors and the psychology of persuasion cause a backlash against perceived Big Brother tactics? So far, results show the opposite; people appear willing to be nudged into shifting their behavior. “From the participants on our experiments, we’ve never heard a backlash,” says Schultz. “People don’t disagree with our efforts to persuade them.”

Peter Aldhous is the San Francisco bureau chief for New Scientist.


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