Monday, November 24, 2008

Changing Behavior

Just spent an interesting couple of days at a second annual conference on behavior and climate change - . Some thoughts about programs to change behavior:
1. What are the goals?: Is the goal to reduce peak demand? To reduce average energy use? To reduce green-house gasses? Or is it to win support for ongoing government policy on climate? All of these are worthy goals but the way to achieve them may not be the same. For example, reducing peak demand by shifting demand does not reduce average demand.
2. Who is the target?: For at least some of these goals, the largest energy users ought to be the target on grounds of efficiency. But if, for example, subsidies and incentives are involved, considerations of equity may come into play as well. Decisions need to be made on how to balance these competing goals. Either way, one thing we lack is good segmentation studies of these targets. Segmenting an audience into distinct groups that may have differing interests and motivation is crucial to both understanding whom to reach and how best to reach them. The best segmentation research on climate and energy has been done in the U.K.. However, new and creative ways of approaching segmentation outside the climate and energy field merit examination. Three different approaches to both segmentation and its application re worth keeping in mind going forward: the most traditional assumes we are looking for people of like mind qua climate (for example, committed environmentalists, deniers etc) and then seeks messages that “work” for each group. A second approach assumes an underlying psychology is more determinative than specific attitudes or beliefs and looks to divide people up on the basis of that underlying theory and its associated taxonomy. Finally, recently developed more experimental approaches attempt to construct a typology de novo out of raw data with a minimum of assumptions at the front end. Using this methodology, we first ask what works in a population and then seek to find out what characteristics the population that responds has.
3. What method?: Knowing the goals and the targets still leaves open the method of how to reach them. Intuition favors education on the assumption the knowledge drives belief which drives behavior. Evidence points to the limits of such models in favor of marketing approaches. Marketing approaches should be distinguished between those that promote messages using the subject of interest – for example, “save energy” and those that are willing to embrace indirection – for example, “Brad Pitt drives a Prius.” But it would be a mistake to limit the menu of choices to these two alternatives. Along with the provision of information, it is worth considering: i. incentives – including subsidies; ii. symbolic rewards – prizes, awards; iii. side-bets – like a commitment to pay money to your least favorite charity if you fail to reach an agreed upon savings goal; iv. opt outs; v. technology options and of course vi. pricing options. The question of how much information is needed to be effective is an open question.
4. An important unknown: Unfortunately, for any method that does work, a crucial missing datum is persistence. Will the change in behavior remain over time? Will the behavior decay? Even if it does not, how will it affect the projected energy growth path? Absent reliable data on persistence it will be hard to plan growth energy capacity with any confidence.
5. On-going evaluation: Nothing could be worse than to set out on a long-term course of action without the capacity to evaluate its effectiveness in near real time. Programs should be designed with this in mind so that they can be adjusted on the fly. For example, the more programs are narrow cast* to targets audiences the easier it is to design effective evaluations. (*The use of mail and the internet as opposed to broadcast and print media.)
6. We are not alone: Every state in the Union and many countries are addressing the same set of problems we face. It would be foolhardy not to learn from them and share our experiences with them. Putting in place a mechanism to do this ought to be a sine qua non. (A few utilities themselves have pioneered important research paradigms that deserve scrutiny.)
7. Cost-benefit analysis: We owe it to the citizenry to keep track of the costs of each renewable KwH or ton of CO2 saved and to take into account all of the costs. Direct subsidies for solar are the only subsidies to the end users. But from a social point of view, all of the advertising to recruit users should be taken into account as well. Only by understanding the full costs can we be in a position to consider alternatives.
8. Attend to core lessons for other fields: The goals we are concerned with may be unique but the tools we have at our disposal are not. There are lessons to be learned from the two most successful social policy programs of the last century: smoking cessation and seat belt use. Moreover, numerous fields are generating insights that merit examination, including: i. diffusion modeling – the study of how and who spreads ideas; ii. design theory – the study of how design influences behavior; iii. the use of cultural media – especially social dramas that ‘model’ the desired behavior change; iv. the study of barriers to adoption – including limited capital, inseparable features, and transaction costs; and v. behavioral economics – the study of deviations from rational choice models.
9. A key insight from the social sciences: Successful change is less an individual matter than a matter of collective change. We like to think of ourselves as more autonomous than we are. This has far reaching ramifications for designing a program for change. We de-emphasize the role of habit and imitation in the way we behave. We undervalue how much we follow and model others. We are embarrassed to admit how much we value social approval. And we forget how much “team spirit” can act as a motivator.
10. Externalities: In the final analysis, it is of the problem of externalities (costs we do not pay for) that drives the core set of problems we are concerned with when it comes to green house gasses. The more we can internalize those prices the easier the road ahead.

Monday, November 17, 2008

More is less

As summarized in the Research section of our web page (, a recent poll we did with support from the utility PSEG uncovered two disturbing results:
1. People who believe in anthropogenic climate change are more likely to have false beliefs about the causes of climate change than others.
2. They are also no more likely to engage in energy saving behavior than anyone else either!
How to explain these disturbing results? I think they both point to the danger of thinking, not unreasonably that knowledge shapes belief which guides action. Here we have something very different going on. Once you believe in human caused climate change, that belief shapes what you accept as knowledge not the other way around. And your actions turn out not to be governed by those beliefs irrespective of where they come from. All of this points to the need to think more creatively about the determinants of behavior and behavioral change.

Monday, November 10, 2008

More Gore

In “The Climate for Change,” NY Times editorial, Nov. 9th, Al Gore calls for the U.S. to pursue carbon cap and trade policies. What he does not call for is U.S. unilateral action to legislate mandated C02 reductions to 1990 levels by 2020 and 80% below by 2050. It is a crucial omission. I came away from conversations with Indian and Chinese government advisors on climate this summer with the clear sense that any and all international negotiations will bog down until and unless the U.S. establishes its bona fides. We need to engage in what a Chinese adviser called “a game changer”. Gore’s other prescriptions are all sensible – increasing alternative energy, building smart national grids, accelerating hybrid auto development and deployment – but they will take many years to implement. His ten year timetable ignores the fact that, assuming normal continued economic growth, U.S. energy demand is going to double within the next 30 years. We need action now that publically binds us to a course of development over time, come what may. The new administration is considering just such action - 1990 levels by 2020 and 80% below by 2050 – but the danger is that this objective will get trumped by the political pressure to the chimera of an energy independence policy.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Next year in Congress?

Nancy Pelosi’s chief of staff told us here at Eagleton that he thinks a climate bill will come to the floor of the Congress in the Fall of 09. Here is some information on what is under discussion taken from the Alliance to Save Energy -