Motivating Homeowner Energy Behaviors

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When people learn the facts about energy efficiency and are aware of critical energy issues, such as rising costs, dependence on foreign oil, increasing greenhouse gases and the like, they will change their energy behaviors to help save money and the earth. Sound right? Well, as it turns out it isn’t, and according to Social Psychologist Wesley Schultz, education and awareness alone will not bring about needed changes in energy use. But what will?

Schultz, a professor at California State University, San Marcos, proposes a social marketing approach to energy conservation and efficiency that centers on norms – an individual’s beliefs about the common and accepted behavior in a specific situation. People may not always want to keep up with the Joneses, but they are greatly impacted by their peers’ behaviors. Schultz spoke about motivating energy behaviors during a workshop held at the California Center for Sustainable Energy in San Diego, Calif.

Most utilities and government agencies have focused their energy conservation efforts on education, awareness and rebates, but Schultz cited several studies showing that while education will lead to increased knowledge, just knowing more generally does not motivate action. And rebates are great while they last, but have little carryover to change long-term energy-use behavior.

Putting It to the Test

In one study, Schultz and his students developed five different messages about residential energy conservation that were put onto door hangers distributed to 1,200 households in San Marcos. Four messages were informational, such as saving energy saves you money and is environmentally responsible, while a fifth message compared the homeowner’s actual energy use to average use among their neighbors. Each household received the same message over the course of several weeks, while the students monitored household electricity use. The study showed that the greatest reductions in energy use were among the households that were told how they stacked up with their neighbors: High consumers used significantly less electricity.

The bottom line is that conservation messages that convey a positive social norm can produce greater positive response than messages that only inform or raise awareness. Even though we cherish our individualism, for the most part, we do not want to be that different from what we perceive as normal.

“It’s important for us to believe that our conservation efforts are not in vain, that other people value conservation and are doing things to conserve,” Schultz said. “Messaging that reinforces this belief of participating tends to be much more influential.”

Does It Look Like Fun?

Schultz is encouraged that utilities and government agencies across the nation are discovering the power of social marketing strategies to change consumer attitudes and behaviors related to energy conservation. He said current campaigns, such as Energy Upgrade California, are headed in the right direction because they are community based and provide mechanisms for questions and peer-to-peer dialogues about opportunities to save energy. If it looks like fun, people will join in.

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