Guilt, Goals, and Mom: Human Behavior and Energy Use

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.

Christine Woodside

Christine Woodside is a freelance writer living in Deep River, Connecticut. Twitter: @chriswoodside)
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13 Responses to Guilt, Goals, and Mom: Human Behavior and Energy Use

  1. Marlin R. Turby says:

    I am glad to see that personal energy consumption is being addressed in the social sciences. These are two excellent observations made here by Harding and Shwom.

    I will add that our western infrastructure has been built around the assumption that energy is relatively inexpensive, particularly since the end of WW11. Our day to day way of life is energy intensive. It’s a difficult situation to abate. We’re spoiled, myself included.

    In the past 25 years we have discovered some of the ignored external costs of energy such as climate change, competition/scarcity/depletion of energy resources, not to mention national conflict and war.

    The political will has been scant at best on transitioning from carbon based to sustainable renewables for energy. The general public appears to not understand exactly what energy is, where it comes from, that fossil fuels are merely ancient solar energy stored in the earth, the carbon cycle so to speak. We take for granted that it will always be available, on demand at the touch of button.

    Climate change and energy are hard news, it’s not overseas, it’s up close and personal people, it’s demanding and it’s scary, with strong implications for an uncertain future.

    Ambivalence, resignation and apathy set in…

    Yet the science tells us we have a decade to peak on carbon usage if we want a reasonably stable climate.

    We need a new conversation on energy. With a shift in our conversation to acknowledging exactly what we face we could actually solve the problem. It’s really just a conversation waiting to be had.

    • Marlin R. Turby says:

      Correction on previous post, paragraph #5, ” it’s up close and personal people”. Should read “it’s up close and personal,”.

  2. Bryan says:

    A definition of wasting personal energy: writing a dissertation on how government and industry tried to influence policies on the energy efficiency of appliances.

  3. Marlin R. Turby says:

    Rachael Shwom notes that being male and Republican are the two most significant predictors in wasting energy. I’m not surprised considering that they tend to view energy, climate and environmental issues through the mindless media sources such as Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity.

    Beyond radio and television the internet has become a vehicle for more of the same, with The Heartland Institute, Americans for Prosperity and similar conservative think? tanks.

    I live in a region that is highly influenced by these sources of disinformation. People hold it as gospel.

    It is interesting that in 1988 James Hanson made headlines with his warnings on global warming. In August of the same year Rush Limbaugh hit the air waves. The radio talk show hosts and Fox News rely heavily on the think tanks for what they call, “evidence”. There are no accidents as the saying goes.

    Heartland has an article called, “Why growth is the Environments Best Friend”. From the archives:” According to Kuznet’s Curve, as populations grow larger and reach a point of overutilization, people tend to notice they are over utilizing a resource and quickly scale use back to the maximum sustainable level, demonstrating the best way to minimize energies impact on the environment is to maximize economic growth”.

    Many affluent people ascribe to this dogma. If cost is not a limiting factor in wasteful energy usage, which for many it is not, there is no incentive to be concerned about it. Additionally it is a defiant act for an individual that separates them from those that claim that the consumption of energy is related to climate change.

    And the alpha male pounds on his chest.

    The anti-environmental movement has become the new social pathogen.

    It is only a conversation, others are equally possible and undoubtedly far more consistent and compatible with natural order.

    You plant ice and you’ll harvest wind.

  4. Dan Rogers says:

    Is there anyone still out there who believes, like I do, that energy use by human beings has nothing to do with climate change? We seem to have regressed to the days of yore when Al Gore and his disciples loudly insisted “The debate is over!” and we were told we must blunder ahead with plans and schemes to control the climate instead of recognizing that we ought to take history seriously and make sensible preparations for a warmer global climate.

    The “last ice age” is still with us, and surely we know enough about the previous four or five ice ages to be able to recognize that human beings had no more to do with ending those glaciations than we have with ending the present one. Climate change is obvious and relentless, and fiddling around with carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will have no effect on it whatsoever.

    • Marlin R. Turby says:


      With all due respect, it is not an issue of belief. It is a verified fact backed with the same scientific methods of integrity that went into making my computer possible. I do not believe in my computer any more than I believe in evolution or gravity… just a function of our universe. I do not take it personally.

      I’m not trying to make you wrong, please understand that. I’m merely inviting you to consider other possibilities beyond what you presently hold as absolute. That’s how science advances.

      The properties of carbon dioxide absorbing heat has been understood for well over a century. Nor is it disputed by even the most diligent of climate denying scientists. It can be demonstrated with a simple flask, an infrared camera and your breath.

      There are numerous forcings that play into natural climate variability, changes in solar output, continental distribution, volcanic activity, oceanic circulation, the Milankovitch cycles, the biosphere, the carbon cycle(CO2), other greenhouse gases such as methane and water vapor, deforestation and the cryosphere, (ice), to name but a few.

      Human,(anthropocentric), forcings, have the ability to alter the biosphere and release various greenhouse gases such as methane and CO2. Additionally there are a host of positive and negative feed back mechanisms that come in to the mix with any climatic forcing. The world climates are as complex as they are fascinating.

      A good book is “The Atmosphere”, Lutgens/Tarbuck/Prentice Hall. It’s an introduction to atmospheric sciences. It is not about global warming although it is discussed.

      A good book on the warming is “Climate Change..What the Science Tells Us”, Charles Fletcher/Wiley.

      I think if you would read about the subject it would become quite clear for you. This is not a conspiracy.

      • Dan Rogers says:

        Martin, I am not a newcomer to this global warming debate. I am seventy-five years old, and I have been an active environmental attorney ever since the early 1970′s when environmental law essentially began to take shape into the forms we find it in today.

        I worked for major corporations, and my job consisted mainly of battling against poorly-considered regulatory and enforcement actions taken by various State and Federal agencies against my clients. It was very intense work, and very educational, but it also involved my telling my clients many, MANY things they did not want to hear. To many of these people I was a “turd in the punchbowl,” and thus I made quite a few enemies among high and mighty men of industry. As a result, I “retired” at age 55 from that corporate work and began teaching environmental law and business law at a community college.

        Marin, I know all I need to know about how infrared light reacts with compound gases such as carbon dioxide, methane and water vapor to produce heat in the atmosphere. I have no doubts about the physics involved in di-polar excitations such as those. Svante Arhenius did indeed demonstrate the greenhouse gas effect, and no one has ever pointed out any big errors in his methods and results.

        But what really boggles my mind is how any honest, intelligent people could cite Arhenius’s work as justification for singling out CO2 and saying that CO2 is the big greenhouse gas villain responsible for what they insist is unusual and unnatural atmospheric warming. These supposedly intelligent and honest people insist that we human beings can actually slow down or put a stop to climate change by limiting or preventing CO2 emissions from power plants, vehicles and other such sources. It simply makes no sense at all. They simply ignore all other greenhouse gases and concentrate their fire on CO2. Why do they do that?

        In the mix of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere — all of which produce dipolar heating reactions with infrared radiation — carbon dioxide is a VERY minor participant in the total greenhouse gas warming effect. It makes up just a minuscule part of the atmosphere compared to water vapor, and, from a molecular standpoint, CO2 is a real weakling when compared to methane.

        If you really believe that capturing greenhouse gases will benefit the planet, then capturing methane should make much more sense to you than capturing CO2. Since methane is a useful substance, the futile attempt at climate control would at least yield some positive benefit to us.

        Now that it looks like the battle against CO2 is going to take place in USEPA rulemaking, it will be very interesting to see what evidence will be presented to the Agency to establish that CO2 is indeed a “pollutant” in the air even though we all know that it is essential to photosynthesis and the ultimate production of both the food we eat and the oxygen we breathe.

        • Marlin R. Turby says:


          I really appreciate your reply. This is healthy, having a conversation instead of engaging in an argument.

          I am not a scientist so I resort to self-education. I also think that citizens are responsible for the issues that confront us and voting is not quite enough. That’s why I’m here, participating.

          CO2 is a minor trace atmospheric gas. As a greenhouse gas, it’s contribution is not so minor. CO2 has an odd physical characteristic about it that qualifies it as having surprisingly strong heat absorbing properties.

          Methane is a far more powerful greenhouse gas but it’s quantity is measured in ppb where CO2 is measured in ppm. It’s contribution is minor when compared to CO2, at least at the present time. However a positive feedback warming in the Arctic is thawing the tundra, which could release a massive amount of methane. So the tables may turn.

          Between the two of us Dan,common sense would lead me to believe that anything measured in such seemingly minute amounts would be negligible. Similarly when I first heard that the planet may warm up 3 to 5 degrees F in the coming century, I thought it was the best news I have ever heard ! I had no idea at the time how much energy was involved. I thought, 5 degrees..? problem ! Then again who would think that a few cells of bacteria or virus could reek such havoc ?

          Common sense has limits. Carl Sagan once said, “Science is an journey into the unknown, with a lesson in humility waiting at every stop. Many passengers would have rather stayed home”.

          Water vapor is of course the dominate greenhouse gas. A warmer climate results in more evaporation which enhances the greenhouse effect, another positive feedback of CO2.

          I imagine that you are familiar with signal to noise ratios. In climatology the “noise”, is natural climate variability and the signal is CO2. This is where they are able to isolate the forcings of CO2 from those of naturally occurring ones such as increases in solar output or the North Atlantic Oscillation.

          Paleoclimatology, as you know is the inquiry of past climates, including the ice ages you mentioned. That investigation is the foundation of climate modeling for the past, present and future climates. You said yourself that we understand the ice ages and true, humans had nothing to do with them.

          The scientific inquiry that sheds light on the ice ages is identical to the inquiry that leads to CO2 in the present. And in those early climates of global ice, CO2 was a major component. It’s the multi-directional cycling of carbon between rock strata, the oceans and the atmosphere that drives much of the long term natural climate variations.

          Carbon is remarkable and we would not be here without it. From photosynthesis and respiration and all living things, aside from water, it is the duct tape of organic chemistry.

          Carbon is the element that allows solar energy to be absorbed, moved about and stored for hundreds of millions of years…fossil fuels. It is not a stretch of imagination that harvesting those fossil fuels and burning them in the course of several centuries would have a warming effect. It’s energy moving from a potential state to the kinetic, no different than the gas in a fuel tank taking you down the road for a ride.

          The discovery of the processes that constitute natural climate variability has given humanity the looking glass to peer into the mysteries of world climates. It is far from over and solid theories none-the-less emerge from the dark corners of the previously unknown.

          The peer reviewed scientific community, from all over the globe, at a staggering consensus of 95% are in agreement that accumulating CO2 from the combustion of fossil fuels is the primary forcing in the 1 degree F, observed planetary warming.

          Given that the scientific community has revealed the cosmos, forwarded images from the Hubble telescope from the edges of the known universe, discovered distant planets orbiting other stars, quantum mechanics, black holes, anti-matter, explored our local star the sun, probed our solar system it’s planets and respective moons, presently exploring the surface of Mars via the Mars Rover, the human genome, the laws of Newtonian Motion, the Periodic Table of Elements, technology…it just goes on and on and on.

          I think we should give them the floor and listen to them and not confuse the science of climate change with the politics of climate change.

          The majority of the of the remaining 5 or so % that are in disagreement with global warming are on the payroll of fossil fuel and related pro free market, zero regulation, industries and conservative think tanks.

          Dr. Patrick Michaels from the University of Virginia, Virginia’s state climatologist, a long time skeptic going back to the 1980′s made a remarkable statement. He was addressing a conference at a contrarian think tank when he revealed something to the order of, ” I have something to tell you, anthropocentric climate change is real, you’re just going to have to get over it”. This can be viewed on a documentary called Earth, The Climate Wars Part 2 written by Dr. Lian Stewart. Google it and you’ll find it.

          I applaud Dr. Michaels, that took something to make that admission. Good for you, Patrick.

          Dr. Fred Singer another long time critic said in a Frontline documentary called, “What’s Up With the Weather”, again this is not a direct quote,” I have no doubt the climate is warming but lets face it, people like beach weather”. I have it on VHS. It was from around 1990.

          No… common sense doesn’t yield much in grasping the tendencies of electrons and their endless vigor or invisible trace greenhouse gases changing climates and raising sea levels but when you put it all together on climate and the science behind it, I think common sense will take you home every time.

          Maybe Carl Sagan’s passengers will find their way back home after all. The humility would be well worth it, for then they would have competence in managing their affairs on a pale blue dot of a nest, tucked away on a milky galaxies spiral.

          • Dan Rogers says:

            Martin, many thanks for your extensive reply. I haven’t had the chance to read it through thoroughly, but just skimming it leads me to suspect that you are not a knee-jerk global warmalist like so many other people.

            “Water vapor is of course the [dominant] greenhouse gas.”

            That is a very profound statement you make. Might it get you some angry retorts?Way back when — a few decades now? — I attended my first presentation of the Al Gore global warming film and lecture. In the Q & Q session, I asked the obvious question, “Isn’t water vapor a greenhouse gas?” A number of people in the audience actually attempted to hush me up! I was told that water vapor is “nice,” is NOT a greenhouse gas because it is “only water” and “not an air pollutant,” and that it cools the planet just as much as it warms the planet so it should just be ignored. If you ask any Al Gorian today if water vapor is a greenhouse gas, he or she is likely to deny it.

            I will comment more later on your last posting, unless the Yale Forum people object to us talking to one another one-to-one. Such dialogue often leads to heretical mischief, although I must say that this forum has not promoted the doctrinaire attitudes we have come to expect from those “debate-is-over” folks who want to quash all skepticism.

  5. Bob Koss says:

    You seem surprised/disappointed that some would sign up for the utility company energy savings program without making any selections. I think they were just more concerned about their privacy than the others who simply went along willy-nilly and checked off boxes on the list. The company could have simply put up a list of suggestions without check-boxes. Use of the check-boxes allowed the company to compile a list of user interests for further use or sale to others. I would have been one of the privacy concerned.

    I don’t have a smart meter as we have a 24 hour flat rate here in Connecticut. I don’t understand why you think the purpose of a smart meter is to save energy. It just allows the customer to save money by time-shifting when they use certain appliances. The customer has the choice of adjusting their schedule to save money or paying through the nose if it happens to be a peak cost period. Since you’ll still be using such things as the clothes dryer to the same extent, no energy is saved. This is often inconvenient for the customer, but always good for the electric supplier. Either they don’t have to provide additional capacity during peak hours or they get paid more for it if they must.

    Programmable thermostats can be useful for saving energy on heating/cooling while you are away, but I’m unfamiliar with ones which shut off other appliances. What would be the purpose? Either you are using them or they aren’t on.

    That this Shwom character felt free to say men(50% of country) + Republican women(17% of country) are at the bottom of the barrel energy conservation wise says nothing attractive about her. Mainly because she admits the data is confusing and the analysis has just started. It doesn’t take much imagination to conclude she is biased against both men and Republicans and any final report she puts out will likely reflect that bias.

  6. Marlin R. Turby says:

    No I’m not a knee-jerk alarmist by any means. I acknowledge water vapor, methane, nitrous oxide and CO2 as purely naturally occurring. Water, of course is absolutely essential…yet when there is too much of it, it can be a bit of a problem, as in a flood.

    CO2…same thing. A natural greenhouse gas however as a greenhouse gas it has greenhouse gas properties, it retains heat…so if it’s relative quantity is increased, a proportionate rise in temperature may be expected.

    CO2 is not an evil gas by any means, life depends upon it.

    I hope the Yale Forum doesn’t mind this discussion and if they do, we will certainly oblige their request. I think this is a productive conversation. We are finding some common ground, developing a relationship, even though initially we came from different perspectives.

    I’ve read many blogs where the fists are a flying…not good…doesn’t work.

    Language is the spawning ground of solutions.

    Thank you for your willingness…you’re alright Dan !

    • John says:

      Marlin, I’ve had these arguments with Mr. Rogers in the past. Maybe if the CO2 effect is explained a little better, we might progress. Below is something I found a while ago on the web regarding the radiation balance of the earth and CO2, and I can’t improve on it. The writer doesn’t mention water vapor, except by implication. (Yes, water vapor is an important greenhouse gas, but is an active part of the earth’s hydrological cycle, and rapidly moves between phases. And remember, that if water vapor gets too high in the atmosphere, it rains.)

      “1. The Sun warms the Earth with shortwave radiation, and CO2 has a negligible interaction with it.

      “2. The planet radiates that heat back into space in the form of longwave radiation, and CO2 has a known and quantified interaction with it.

      “3. If you slow the planet’s release of longwave radiation to space, the radiation builds up and the planet warms.

      “4. CO2 has increased by ~40% since the start of the Industrial Revolution.

      “5. Global average temperatures have increased by ~1 degree C over the last century, the majority of this being over the last 30-40 years. Also, ocean temperatures, sea level rise, and the melting of sea and land ice all indicate the planet is indeed warming.

      “6. Satellites in space have measured a decrease in the planet’s emission of longwave radiation to space, with a significant decrease in the wavelengths of radiation that CO2 interacts with (if the radiation in those wavelengths isn’t reaching the satellites, then it means the radiation is building up in the climate system).

      “7. Instruments on the ground have measured an increase in those same wavelengths of radiation (since the planet receives a negligible amount of radiation in those wavelengths from the Sun, it means the radiation is being scattered back to the planet’s surface from the atmosphere, and we know CO2 is building up in the atmosphere and interacts with these wavelengths).

      “8. Solar output has been declining over the last 30+ years, and does not correlate with the increase in global average temperatures. Also, other natural cycles of things that affect climate, like ENSO, are not trending in the warming direction, neither are Milankovich cycles (the initiators of ice ages and interglacials).

      “All this evidence taken into account points to a pretty conclusive picture.”

  7. Marlin R. Turby says:

    That is an excellent description of how incoming solar radiation is nonreactive with CO2. It is the long wave escaping radiation that is absorbed by CO2 in the lower troposphere, thus warming it, which in turn has a cooling effect on the stratosphere and a warming tendency of land, sea and sky.

    There are many indicators of a planetary warming, sourced by an initial heating of the lower atmosphere, as you point out.

    The Earth Observing Satellite, EOS, managed by NASA is the equivalent of a CAT scan of the earth. Technology has surpassed doubt. A documentary called “Earth From Space”, is available and highly recommended for all to see.

    Tax dollars well spent.