What’s really killing energy behavior change?

Speaking Sustainably

What’s really killing energy behavior change?

For many years, we’ve asked consumers who they most blame for rising energy costs. And for years, respondents have said they most blame either 1) oil companies, or 2) the U.S. government – with utilities much farther down the list. This year, in light of declining natural gas prices, we edited the question, asking who (or what) respondents thought most affects energy costs. With this change, “blame” shifted dramatically to utilities, followed closely by oil companies and the U.S. government.

Most pertinent, however, is who Americans don’t blame – themselves. Only 12 percent blamed energy costs on their own demand, because 80 percent of consumers think they use the same or less energy in their homes than they did five years ago. And we know this simply isn’t true — American residential energy consumption hit record highs last year.

This incredibly strong “it’s not my fault” mentality creates a huge challenge for energy conservation behavior change.  According to social scientist J.B. Rotter, perceived locus of control strongly influences whether behaviors are thought to be “instrumental for goal attainment.” So if the locus of control for home energy bills is perceived to be external, or under the control of “powerful others” (utilities), then individual action is thought to be largely irrelevant. Put simply, many Americans do not believe that energy conservation behaviors will lower their energy bills. And if lowering bills (saving money) is the primary driver for most, then there’s no perceived need or reward for behavior change. 

Compounding the problem is the fact that almost 40 percent of Americans who’ve completed energy-efficient home improvements or changed energy consumption behaviors (e.g., changed thermostat settings) said they haven’t seen a decline in their utility bills. An applicable psychological concept for this situation is called learned helplessness, which develops when people take actions to address a problem that ultimately fail, thereby solidifying the conclusion that they have no control.

Learned helplessness often translates into a serious motivation problem. Those who have failed at previous tasks are more apt to conclude that they can’t succeed in the future. According to pioneering researchers Steven Maier and Martin Seligman, “Exposure to uncontrollable events interferes with our ability to perceive contingent relationships between our behavior and outcomes.” 

Likewise, the more we succeed, the more we attribute success to our own actions (internality) and the more likely we are to “direct actions toward attainment of desired goals.” In other words, the more we try without seeing a change in our bills, the more likely we are to blame the utility, give up and do nothing more. But if we see bill reductions when we change our behaviors and make improvements, the more we believe we can act to reduce our bills, and the more likely we are to do more.

In order to combat learned helplessness and shift the perceived locus of control for energy, we believe that a systemic disruption is needed. Utilities must accelerate the roll-out of smart meters (and the energy monitoring tools they enable) to increase consumer engagement and education about home energy consumption. Energy efficiency rebates and incentives need to be reworked to reward multiple behaviors and improvements — rather than one-off activities — to help homeowners reach the number of actions required to see a real change in their bills. States and utilities need to more aggressively incentivize residential solar generation, de-couple rates, and make time-of-use billing the norm. We’ve got to shift the perceived locus of control by creating bill reduction “wins” for consumers before we’ll see real, lasting, behavior change.

Surrender photo by Anneka via Shutterstock.