How psychology can help the planet stay cool
- 19 August 2009 by Peter Aldhous
- New Scientist Magazine
"I'M NOT convinced it's as bad as the experts make out... It's everyone else's fault... Even if I turn down my thermostat, it will make no difference." The list of reasons for not acting to combat global warming goes on and on.
This month, an American Psychological Association (APA) task force released a report highlighting these and other psychological barriers standing in the way of action. But don't despair. The report also points to strategies that could be used to convince us to play our part. Sourced from psychological experiments, we review tricks that could be deployed by companies or organisations to encourage climate-friendly behaviour. Also, on page 40 of this issue, psychologist Mark van Vugt of the Free University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands describes the elements of human nature that push us to act altruistically.
As advertisers of consumer products well know, different groups of people may have quite distinct interests and motivations, and messages that seek to change behaviour need to be tailored to take these into account. "You have to target the marketing to the demographic," says Robert Gifford of the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada, another of the report's authors.
Messages that seek to change behaviour need to be tailored to the interests of individual groups
The affluent young, for instance, tend to be diet conscious, and this could be used to steer them away from foods like cheeseburgers - one of the most climate-unfriendly meals around because of the energy it takes to raise cattle. So when trying to convince them to forgo that carbon-intensive beef pattie, better to stress health benefits than harp on about the global climate.
Though conservative pundits have been known to attack such efforts, characterising them as psychological manipulation or "mind control", experiments indicate that people are willing to be persuaded. "From participants in our experiments, we've never heard a negative backlash," says Wesley Schultz of California State University in San Marcos. In fact, according to John Petersen of Oberlin College, Ohio, we are used to far worse. "Compared to the barrage of advertising, it seems milder than anything I experience in my daily life," he says.
DEEP down, most of us want to fit in with the crowd, and psychologists are exploiting this urge to conform to encourage environmentally friendly behaviour.
Researchers led by Wesley Schultz at California State University in San Marcos and Jessica Nolan, now at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania, have found that people will cut their electricity usage if told that their neighbours use less than they do.
In one experiment, the researchers left information with households in San Marcos asking them to use fans rather than air conditioners at night, turn off lights and take shorter showers. Some messages simply stressed energy conservation, some talked about future generations, while others emphasised the financial savings. But it was the flyers that implored residents to join with their neighbours in saving energy that were most effective in cutting electricity consumption (Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, vol 34, p 913).
In another study, the researchers told households what others in their neighbourhood used on average. High users cut their consumption in response, but low users increased theirs. The problem disappeared if the messages were reinforced with sad or smiley faces. The smileys received by the residents who were already saving energy provided sufficient encouragement for them to keep doing so (Psychological Science, vol 18, p 429).
MOST people seem to conserve energy if provided with real-time feedback on how much they are using. But feedback can be too immediate.
For instance, Janet Swim has a General Motors car that shows her mileage per gallon plummeting each time she accelerates. It's just not very useful, she argues, because it's hard to place that momentary piece of feedback in the context of her overall driving behaviour and fuel efficiency.
In contrast, the Toyota Prius display shows mileage per gallon over 5-minute intervals for the previous half-hour. With that contextual information, people can experiment with different driving styles to see how they affect mileage, and even compete with themselves to improve over time. The 2010 Honda Insight goes one better, flashing up an image of a trophy to reward thrifty driving.
The benefits of feedback are not restricted to car gadgets. Studies show that devices that display domestic energy usage produce savings of between 5 and 12 per cent.
EVERY spring, selected student dormitories at Oberlin College in Ohio compete to discover which one can cut energy use by the most. Computer screens give the students detailed feedback on electricity consumption, and in one study dorms cut their electricity use by 55 per cent (International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, vol 8, p 16).
The researchers running the study have not yet crunched their numbers to separate out the effects of competition from the feedback on electricity consumption, but the large savings compared to other studies that lack a competitive element suggest a strong effect. "The competition, at least in this environment, is critical," says John Petersen, Oberlin's head of environmental studies.
Petersen concedes that Oberlin may attract students with green sensibilities atypical of society at large. The project is about to extend into the real world. Equipment to provide detailed feedback on electricity use will be fitted into 53 apartments and six business units in a development now under construction in the city of Oberlin. "We hope to create volunteer groups that will compete with one another," says psychologist Cindy Frantz.
Here and now
PEOPLE have to be persuaded to act on climate change even though the benefit won't be felt for decades. Research by David Hardisty and Elke Weber of Columbia University in New York suggests ways to achieve this.
Hardisty and Weber have found that people respond in exactly the same way to decisions involving future environmental gains and losses as they do when making financial decisions (Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, vol 138, p 329). This allows psychologists' knowledge of how to manipulate financial decision-making to be brought into play.
For instance, schemes that give people an upfront cash payment for insulating their home will work better than those promising long-term savings, even if the people receiving cash end up paying a little more in the long run.
And because we are generally more worried about future losses than we are impressed by future gains, messages are more effective if framed to warn people that they will lose $500 over 10 years if they don't follow a particular course of action to limit climate change than if they are told they'll be $500 better off if they do take action.
AS SOCIAL animals, we like to interact with others and take inspiration from their actions. Psychologists are working out how to exploit this to spread behaviours that will help limit climate change. "My sense is that social networks are going to be important," says Swim.
Allowing people to document successes in saving energy on their Facebook pages could drive change among their friends, and the Oberlin team is considering integrating this into its urban residence experiment.
Tawanna Dillahunt and colleagues at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, think such opportunities presented by Facebook can be combined with our liking for furry animals. Inspired by the attachment that people can develop towards Tamagotchi virtual pets, the team is testing the persuasive power of a "virtual polar bear" standing on an ice floe that grows bigger as people adopt environmentally friendly behaviours such as taking shorter showers. Initial results suggests the polar bear has pull.