Image of electric plug and utility bill

A unique annual meeting at the Garrison Institute comes to grips — or at least tries to — with the human behavior component of energy use and climate. A key question: What makes people tick?

GARRISON, N.Y. — Early each summer, an unlikely crop of social scientists comes together at the Garrison Institute’s “Climate, Mind, and Behavior” conference.

Tucked in a former monastery on the banks of the Hudson River, in Garrison, New York, 100 or so sociologists, economists, psychologists, and historians studying human behavior and climate change seek common ground in their mutual interests in energy and climate change.

Many of them relate that they have gone to no other conference like this with the mixing of numerous disciplines. At Garrison, they agreed to go barefoot all day inside the center’s meditation hall, where (in between actual meditation breaks led by a Buddhist priest) they shared research into that most confounding of climate-change puzzles: Why people are so reckless with energy consumption.

Or, more accurately, they quantified what sorts of attitudes and rules might motivate people to use less energy. Various studies have shown that the U.S. could cut energy use significantly — by at least one-quarter by some estimates — just by choosing efficient products and learning to turn things off or do without. But people struggle to do those things, and so far, the savings are nowhere near the possibilities in most regions.

Into this quandary on the conference’s first night waded Stanford University assistant economics professor Matthew Harding and Rutgers University human ecology sociologist Rachael Shwom. Both said that people will save energy when prompted by wide-ranging stimuli like Facebook posts, setting goals for themselves, being tired, wanting to save money, and old-fashioned guilt.

But, they also said, no one influence has so far made a huge difference, long-term, in how society can vastly cut its energy use. The difficulties people have coping with their own ambitions to save energy make for some strange stories.

Signing-Up to Save, Then Choosing Nothing from a List

Harding reviewed surprising choices northern Illinois electricity customers made when offered ways to save money by signing up for a “Citizens’ Utility Board” program. They were asked to tick-off on a list items they could promise they’d do — such as change to compact fluorescent light bulbs or hang their laundry to dry. The website program would periodically inform them how they were doing with their energy-saving goals, and offer suggestions on how to meet them if they were behind.

Matthew Harding…skeptical that ‘information alone’ will change behaviors.

But Harding said some of them didn’t check anything. (It turns out they got some savings just by listing their names, but still.)

Others selected so many energy-saving activities that they signed up to save more energy than they were buying from the utility. “They were going to save more than 100 percent of their consumption,” Harding said, “because they had no idea what they were doing.”

It’s the human condition: we have lots of good ideas, but often we don’t really know what we’re doing. “This is the world where we know everything about everyone,” Harding told his colleagues. “In order to sign up for a program like this, you need to be sophisticated enough to realize that you have an enormous consumption problem.” And still, following through presents a challenge that might be too big.

Are Meters Sufficient to Make People Save Power?

Harding found that giving people information on meters isn’t enough to predict reliable energy savings. Citizens do better, he said, if they can try a couple of tactics at the same time.

“In the research that I’ve done, I find that people with smart meters who also have programmable thermostats that respond to price changes have large savings,” Harding said. The programmable thermostat works automatically to save energy and turns off unused appliances.

But customers who have to check information and then make decisions about turning things down — they don’t do so well. If they just own smart meters or use websites to learn about prices and how much they’re using — they don’t save as much energy.

“In general, I am skeptical that information alone is sufficient to change behavior,” Harding said in an e-mail to The Yale Forum. He said he does believe that in some situations, people will respond to some kind of incentive to change their behavior — whether it’s a company offering a price cut, or someone saying it’s an ethical issue. Social scientists call such incentives “nudges.” Harding said, “My view is that we need information PLUS something else (technology or nudges) to really change behavior.”

Do Exhausted ‘Earth Mothers’ Waste Energy on the Sly?

Shwom has studied social institutions and environmental behavior for years. (Her dissertation was on how government and industry tried to influence policies on the energy efficiency of appliances.)

Rachael Shwom, who has studied motherhood as a social institution on energy use issues.

She said she recently had decided to look more closely at motherhood as a social institution because, “I became a mom, and I felt really tired.” She didn’t feel like making the same effort to recycle, for instance, and she started noticing other exhausted mothers on Facebook saying things like, “I’m an environmentalist, but when I have kids all I want to do is move to the suburbs and throw my kids out on the lawn.” Or, “Yeah, I want an SUV so I don’t have to bend down to put my kids in.”

Then out came some provocative books: Elisabeth Badinter’s argument that modern mothers are forced to live like throwbacks to the past (The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women). And Alison Pugh’s book on parents buying too much to show love (Longing and Belonging Parents, Children and Consumer Culture). Shwom also followed research by her Rutgers sociologist colleague Norah MacKendrick, on mothers who control consumption, but for personal reasons: they want to keep chemicals away from their children.

But when Shwom put the issue of motherhood and wasting energy to groups of mothers and non-mothers, she found that dog-tired new mothers probably are no worse environmentalists than almost anyone else.

This could mean: they might feel guilty about their exhaustion, and vent on Facebook about wasting energy, but their guilty feelings probably stopped them from actually following through. Nothing like a little motherly guilt to keep energy-wasting in check?

Not so fast. “This analysis has just begun,” Shwom said to the gathered social scientists, “and it is fairly confusing at this point. I’ve just had the data for a couple of months.” But comparing men and women, she did conclude that being male and being Republican are the two most significant predictors of wasting more energy.

The group she found to be saving the most energy were women with no children. But a lot of women with children were “spending a lot of time preparing food, growing vegetables, avoiding toxics,” although “less time attending an environmental meeting.”

The question of human behavior and how it plays from an energy and climate perspective: It all remains one of the most challenging elements in an overall complicated stew of issues critical to addressing climate change/energy challenges.

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