Last Thursday, Miriam Fischlein spoke at a faculty candidate seminar for the environmental sciences department at Dartmouth College. Fischlein explained the psychology and sociology behind the motivation of energy conservation. She went on to explain two of her recent research projects that looked at the effectiveness of feedback systems and messaging in prompting a move toward sustainability.


On the surface, the motivation to reduce energy use seems fairly obvious. Fischlein stated that lower energy use translates directly to lower emissions and a more secure energy supply, which is often cost-effective. She made sure to clarify that her research dealt with behavioral strategies, rather than technological improvements, as a means of promoting conservation.


In theory, there are several basic economic and psychological motivators that motivate people to be more sustainable. It is easy assume that providing people with information that using less energy is more cost-effective would motivate a shift toward conservation. However, Fischlein observed that there is often an “energy-efficiency gap,” or a difference between what is economically efficient and what actually gets done. Fischlein stated that “more information alone is not enough,” as increasing awareness has been shown to increase knowledge while motivating little behavioral change.


According to Fischlein, even raising the price of energy might not promote a decrease in consumption because energy exhibits low price elasticity. She also observed “psychological licensing” related to energy use, which effectively means that people lose a sense of moral responsibility for their actions because they have to pay to consume. Motivating altruistic conservation is also difficult because energy use is not visible, so people cannot see the impact of their actions in any direct way.


While many classic motivators fail to increase sustainable action, Fischlein noted that social norms seem to have a larger impact. The two major types of norms that influence the way people behave are descriptive and injunctive norms. Descriptive norms are defined as what is perceived to be “normal” or “average” within a population, while injunctive norms are defined as what is perceived to be the morally correct or best thing to do.


Both of Fischlein’s studies employed descriptive and injunctive norms in an attempt to motivate people to practice conservation in their daily lives. The first project took place in the Rieber Terrace dormitories at UCLA. Fischlein’s team installed sensors to monitor energy use and provided students with a website to track their progress compared to their average and high performing neighbors.


Perhaps more importantly, Fischlein also implemented social recognition in the form of a highly visible poster that tracked which rooms had above or below average energy use each week. Over the 18-week period, Fischlein’s program was able to prompt a 30 percent reduction in heating and cooling energy use, with 7 percent and 3 percent reductions in light and electrical outlet usage respectively.


Fischlein is currently running a similar study in University Village with the hope that it will be more directly comparable to the “real-world” than the UCLA dorm study. The study will last for 20 weeks rather than 18, and feature a larger and more varied group of subjects. The University Village project will also feature targeted messaging in addition to similar feedback mechanisms.


In the future, Fischlein hopes to expand her efforts to promote sustainability by developing mobile and social media apps with similar functions to the feedback websites from her studies.