Thursday, December 03, 2009

Most People Don't Do Green Sh*t: Breaking Down Behavioral Barriers

How can we get around the quirky, often irrational nature of human decisionmaking in trying to make buildings more efficient?

So asks Grist's David Roberts, who notes (quite comically) that:

The most puzzling behavioral phenomenon to understand when it comes to building efficiency is that Most People Won’t Do Sh*t (MPWDS). “Most people” includes people who could make money by doing sh*t, people who say they will do sh*t, even people who have promised to do sh*t. I’ve heard from people who write about energy efficiency for a living, know exactly what to do to make their homes more efficient, and still don’t do sh*t. It’s hard to disentangle the reasons why—some mix of status quo bias, hyperbolic discounting, and loss aversion to begin with—but it’s clear that public surveys and polls about this tend to be misleading. What people say they’re willing to do and what they demonstrate they’re willing to do are very different things. Attitudes don’t translate into actions.

Politicians and political activists often seem obsessed with massaging public attitudes.  Meanwhile, the American advertising industry has transformed the country repeatedly since WWII by attending to how people act. They understand social and behavioral cues, fear and aspiration, emotional triggers.

So how do we motivate people to get off their a*ses and do sh*t to help make buildings more efficient, at the same time reducing emissions and saving money?

There’s a simple social psychological phenomenon at work here: the flocking instinct. People want to do basically what People Like Them do. They don’t want to be outliers.

And that’s not all: they want that conforming behavior affirmed.

Th(is) behavioral approach is catching on:

This interest in consumer psychology is a new paradigm for utilities, which for years were run by engineers and, says [Opower co-founder Alex] Laskey, “without regard to customers.” Tim Stout, vice-president of energy efficiency at [Massachusetts utility] National Grid, admits that most of the company’s efforts toward conservation have been tied to infrastructure and hardware—the installation of insulation or weatherization, rebates for more efficient equipment. “When we look at the remaining potential for efficiency,” Stout says, “changing consumer behavior is the next wave of savings that needs to be tapped.”

This is what it comes down to: those who would tap the potential for building efficiency are ultimately trying to change the way people behave:  the way they heat and cool, they way they light, the way they invest. As we’ve seen, neither knowledge nor willingness is sufficient. A more sophisticated understanding of behavior is required to overcome the barriers to action.

The immediate implication is that the federal government should reconsider the overwhelming proportion of energy research and funding that goes to technology and focus at least a little more on social psychological research and pilot projects that attempt to apply that research in ways that shift consumer and investor behavior. That kind of work is complementary to a technology approach and can substantially reduce its cost.

In the Art of War, Sun Tzu said, “Know the enemy and know yourself; in a hundred battles you will never be in peril.” In the battle to drive efficiency, we are our own worst enemy; we must come to understand ourselves.

Fantastic piece.

As a conservation biologist, I've spent more than 15 years becoming intimately familiar with both the ecological challenges we face, and the types of management and policy strategies we need to implement to solve them.  The more I became familiar with the outstanding work of scientists, the more I became frustrated that the huge array of knowledge we have in the solutions department is too-often failing to be translated into on-the-ground management and policy solutions.  A big part of the problem, I've found, is in actually motivating people to implement the scientifically-recommended solutions.

Thus, over the last few years, I've been digging deeper and deeper into the types of behavioral studies that Roberts writes about above.  The ones he mentioned -- in which smart language choices and rewards make a significant difference in getting people take requested green actions -- are definitely a couple of my favorites.

The more I become familiar with rising language jujutsu disciplines such as conservation psychology and conservation sociology, the more strongly I believe they hold crucial keys to advancing our transition to a Green Economy.  They can help us live safer, healthier and wealthier lives in spite of ourselves!

For more on this subject, check out the "Motivating change" category on this blog. 

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