Making a psychological case for cutting home energy use

February 8, 2013

You’d think that with the vast amount of information out there connecting home energy use with global warming, consumers would be more into insulation, solar power and
super-efficient furnaces.

Even the prospect of saving money by using less energy has not proved to be a sufficient
inducement to the vast majority of homeowners.

This is not surprising to Paul Atchley, a psychology professor at the University of Kansas, who has spent the past five years developing ways to get college students and the general public to stop texting while driving.

Though his research may seem a long way from reducing home energy use, both involve changing behavior and the solution lies in understanding how we make decisions.

Although we like to think we are rational beings, our emotions underlie every decision we make, Atchley said. All incoming “data” to our brains are “processed” in our emotional nerve center before they move on to our “executive function” in the frontal cortex. Before you consciously begin to grapple with energy and equipment costs, potential energy savings and everything else related to home energy, your emotions have already weighed in.

We’re also very social beings, Atchley said. We want to know what others in our peer group are doing, and our perception of their behavior exerts a heavy influence on how we behave and the decisions we make.

Although we like to think that our adolescent desire to be like the “cool” kids fades with adulthood, Atchley said it continues throughout our lives. Though you may regard yourself as an independent thinker, the opinion of your peer group remains remarkably powerful.

Just how powerful was demonstrated in a very famous psychology experiment that focused on home energy use, Atchley said.

The research team, led by two psychologists, Robert Cialdini of Arizona State University and Wesley Schultz of California State University, San Marcos, hung a series of five door hangers with energy-saving messages on several hundred homes in a San Diego suburb in 2004. Three of the five door hangers displayed appeals to save energy that are commonly offered: Protect the environment, benefit society and save money. The fourth door hanger stated that summer is here and it’s a time to save energy. The fifth message simply said that the majority of your neighbors are saving energy. The researchers measured the effectiveness of the messages by obtaining meter readings before and after the door hangers were distributed. They found that the first four had minimal effect. But the fifth, which mentioned the neighbors, produced a significant, 10 percent drop in home energy usage, Schultz said.

Based in part on these findings that were corroborated in additional research, Cialdini helped found Arlington-based OPower, a firm that is currently working with almost 80 utilities in the United States and five other countries, crunching data from their service areas to compare the energy use of each residential customer with that of 100 others in similarly sized nearby houses or apartments. The comparison is included with each customer’s monthly bill; many customers can also access the information more frequently online. Overall, OPower’s work has helped residential customers to reduce their home energy use by 1.5 to 3.5 percent, OPower executive Carly Llewellyn said. In the Washington area, OPower works with Pepco.

Another critical finding from the psychologists’ work with the California homeowners helps to explain why information on home energy use and greenhouse gas emissions has not moved most homeowners to prioritize energy efficiency. The homeowners were oblivious to the influence of the neighbors and assumed their motivations were more laudable, “a perfect example of our brains’ amazing capacity for self-deception,” Atchley said.

Psychologists may discover other ways in which our subconscious desire for peer approval could lead to our using less energy at home, but in the meantime, Atchley suggested, policy makers, public utility officials and all the other groups that have exorted homeowners to use less energy might focus on a truth that salesmen have known from time immemorial: When you create a positive emotional connection between your customers and your product and add status to the mix, your chances of making a sale increase dramatically. This explains in large measure the popularity of granite countertops, the No. 1 item on most homeowners’ must-have lists. At this juncture there’s no status or emotional resonance attached to insulation, air sealing, high-efficiency furnaces or most other aspects of home energy saving. For most homeowners, these are non-starters.

The one exception, Atchley observed, is window replacement. Unlike insulation that is hidden in the walls or other energy-saving improvements that are likewise out of sight, windows are seen everyday. When you choose replacement ones with a different architectural style, you can give a space an entirely different look.

These characteristics help salesmen to make a case, but they have been given a huge boost by the window manufacturers’ massive and remarkably successful advertising campaign that has tapped into our culture’s bedrock belief that our home is our castle and it must be secure. Online, print and television ads as well as frequent mail circulars all trumpet the virtues of replacement windows that will keep our loved ones “safe and sound.”

To get homeowners interested in insulation, Atchley suggested that that industry take a page from the window manufacturers’ playbook and emphasize that it, too, can keep you safe and sound in your castle, while suggesting other gratifications that can be realized with this home improvement. For example, ads might picture a family frolicking on the beach in February, their vacation costs covered with the money they saved on heating after they upgraded their home insulation.

While this may sound hokey, such an advertising campaign could start to create a positive emotional connection to the product, and, as every successful salesman knows, that’s when every successful sale begins, Atchley said.

Katherine Salant has an architecture degree from Harvard. A native Washingtonian, she grew up in Fairfax County and now lives in Ann Arbor, Mich. If you have questions or column ideas, she can be contacted at salanthouseatch@gmail.com or www.katherinesalant.com .

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