IU research explores why Americans resist changing energy conservation behavior

  • Aug. 18, 2016


BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Americans are content to take easy steps toward energy conservation but want others to make the major lifestyle changes that will slow climate change, according to new Indiana University research.

The researchers posed two questions in scientific online surveys:

  • In your opinion, what is the single most effective thing that you could do to use less energy in your life?
  • In your opinion, what is the single most effective thing that Americans could do to use less energy in their lives?

Many answers for the first question revolved around “turning off the light” (20 percent). But responses switched to more difficult and effective behaviors such as driving less (32 percent) when asked about other Americans. This phenomenon -- “I’ll do the easy thing, you do the hard thing” -- is frequently how people consider energy conservation goals, said Shahzeen Attari of IU’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs, lead author of the study.

Attari and co-authors David Krantz and Elke Weber of Columbia University analyzed results of two surveys involving more than 1,400 participants. The researchers offered two explanations for why people gave these asymmetrical responses:

  • We know the challenges we face that affect our behavior. In the driving example, it may be that individuals may not have access to public transit to their distant jobsite. “People believe that other Americans should do harder and more effective actions, even though they themselves cannot engage in these effective actions due to limitations posed by situational context,” Attari said. “It’s not always a matter of selfishness. We just know our lives better.”
  • We see actions as inapplicable to our lives and that, unconsciously, gives us an excuse not to take that action.

“Failures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by adopting policies, technologies and lifestyle changes have led the world to the brink of crisis, or likely beyond,” the authors conclude. “So policymakers and environmental advocates should pay particular attention to what’s known as motivated cognition and take steps to decrease the actual and apparent difficulty of effective actions.”

Attari said people need to be convinced that what they see as a difficult action may be easier than they perceive and could actually be applicable to their lives.

“Turning off the lights is better than doing nothing,” she said. “But using energy-efficient appliances and insulating your home will have far more impact, and those are things we can do even if they seem hard.”

The research, "Energy conservation goals: What people adopt, what they recommend, and why," was published by the journal Judgment and Decision Making.

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Shahzeen Attari

Shahzeen Attari

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Jim Hanchett

  • School of Public and Environmental Affairs
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