Niamh Murtagh studies why people waste energy at home, even when they know they shouldn’t. Since this story appeared in Nature Climate Change’s inaugural issue of March 2011, Murtagh has changed her affiliation to University College London and continues to study ordinary people and energy use.

Research psychologist Niamh Murtagh has spent the past few years studying why people find it hard to stop using their cars so much. She wanted her son, Ben, to get to school by walking — a trip of only 15 minutes. Even though Ben did not complain, Murtagh saw that Ben envied his friend, Jack, who lived closer to the school, but whose mother drove him in an SUV. “I wondered whether status and image or identity were part of their decision,” Murtagh said, adding, “In my own case, I felt that I was more likely to be seen as a ‘do-gooder’, even self-righteous,” if we walked. Murtagh and another mother invited eight of their neighbours to join them in a ‘walking bus’, with adults trudging along with the children, but only one other family took part. The others made excuses. They didn’t have time, they said, or the kids didn’t want to walk. One family didn’t even respond.

Murtagh’s awkward encounters with the neighbours have been a motivating factor in her research at the University of Surrey, UK, where she is part of a team that studies the link between people’s lifestyles and the environment. The team, called Resolve, is among a growing body of social scientists at institutions around the world who have taken to trying to explain the reasoning behind our excessive energy consumption — why we drive big cars or keep the heat switched on in summer. The world seemed to have left these questions for dead in the early 1980s when, after an energy crisis, the price of oil dropped. Today, funding for environmental social science research remains thin, almost paltry, compared with funding for the physical sciences (1). But as national and international efforts to curb greenhouse-gas emissions flail, this branch of social science research is becoming ever more important on a policy level, as it could be our best chance at saving energy — and mitigating climate change — in the short term.

Power to the people

How much energy we could truly save by solving the riddle of our behaviour remains a mystery. Research by Michigan State University sociologist Thomas Dietz, psychologist Paul Stern, director of the Committee on the Human Dimensions of Global Climate Change at the National Research Council, and colleagues suggests that energy conservation is in itself part of the solution to transitioning to a low-carbon economy, equivalent to measures such as large-scale deployment of solar panels or carbon capture and storage (2). A global study of how to cut energy demand concluded that changing policies and behaviour alone could reduce residential energy use by half. As this makes up a quarter of current global energy use, the potential here seems to be huge (3) (Fig. 1). Add transportation, another quarter of the world’s energy use, and the potential to cut back makes individual citizens seem powerful; citizens’ living and transportation comprise more than one-third of carbon dioxide emissions in the United States. In the United Kingdom, 28.5% of energy use is domestic and 37% is for transportation (4). The obvious solution is to make cuts in these categories, but so far humans have shown they are not inclined towards energy austerity unless they live in third-world countries, where there often is no alternative.

In western society, where choices abound, even the 60% of people who recognize climate change as a problem are doing very little to address it (5). Why that’s the case is a question that has long dogged physical scientists. “The climate scientists are driving themselves crazy — why can’t they get the message across?” says Stern. “It’s not a matter of revising their lecture notes. Knowledge is not sufficient to change policy. There are other things going on.” Social scientists trying to understand those ‘other things’ are finding that many of our consumption and energy-related choices occur at a deeply subconscious level. They are discovering that people do want to use less energy, but forget or put it aside in the rush of routine, or they don’t know how, because in industrialized countries society’s systems aren’t set up that way. Or they tend to delude themselves about how much energy they save when they try, or succumb to peer pressure. Also, it might sound a little juvenile, but it’s not cool to save energy. No one wants a shrill lecture about it. “I like to quote Kermit the Frog who says, ‘It’s not easy being green’,” says Stern.

Identity issues

Recent research suggests that much of our consumption stems from a deep desire to fit in, to do what others do. While Murtagh has been finding ways to be diplomatic with neighbours who don’t want to walk their children to school, she has been documenting similar attitudes in working parents across the UK. In a 2010 study published as a working paper at the University of Surrey (6), Murtagh, and colleagues Birgitta Gatersleben and David Uzzell surveyed parents who earned at least £25,000 per year and lived in suburban or urban locations. In their sample, participants made 80% of their trips by car (compared with a national average of 71%) and 52% of their trips to school by car (also higher than the national average of 43%). More than 70% said that being a driver was important to their identity, behind being a ‘parent’ and ‘worker’, suggesting their decision to drive is partly governed by how they think others perceive them.

However, although peer pressure may prompt us to continue driving, it can also provide the necessary incentive to switch to more sustainable behaviour. In a study motivated by reports of the enormous popularity of the Toyota Prius hybrid car in the US, even after tax rebates there ended, Vladas Griskevicius of the University of Minnesota and colleagues found that status-seeking motivates individuals to buy greener products more strongly than any desire to save energy and reduce emissions. Writing in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2010, the team reported the results of a series of experiments on the motivators behind shopping behaviour (7). The students play-acted a scenario in which they had graduated, been promoted and had to choose between environmentally friendly ‘green’ products or regular products when shopping. In the first experiment, students chose green products preferentially over regular products. In a second experiment, the researchers found that the students chose identically priced ‘green’ over traditional backpacks, batteries and table lamps when they simulated shopping in public, but when told they were shopping online at home, more tended to choose non-green, luxurious products. The group’s third test was the most compelling: the green products — this time, cars, backpacks and dishwashers — were similar to the regular products, but the green ones were more expensive. More people went for the green items, proving, the authors concluded, that being green is not just about being altruistic, but is also about us wanting others to see our altruism.

So sometimes we just want to impress our peers, it seems, but research suggests that we often also succumb to them. In a study published in Journal of Consumer Research in 2008, Noah Goldstein of the University of Chicago Business School, together with researchers from Arizona State University, tested the reactions of hotel guests to variously worded signs posted outside the shower urging them to hang their towels up and save the energy of providing a new one. Over 53 days, hotel workers were trained to help with the study and noted the towel-hanging tendencies of 1,595 oblivious participants. The messages ranged from simple suggestions to help the environment to a very specific one asking the guest to join others who had stayed in that same hotel room (and it gave the room number) in saving energy by reusing towels. This very specific message to join a community of ‘towel hangers’ yielded the highest towel-reuse rate of 49.3% (ref. 8).

Green fakers

Our desire to fit in may even cause us to tell bare-faced lies. “People say that they are very concerned about climate change and that they’re prepared to do a lot to stop it, but all the evidence shows that they’re not doing it,” says Geoff Beattie, author and head of the School of Psychological Sciences at the University of Manchester, UK. Beattie’s new work on climate change and attitudes might make people blush (9). In a paper soon to be published in The International Journal of Environmental, Cultural, Economic and Social Sustainability, Beattie shows that people who say they are environmentally aware actually reveal through their body language that they aren’t. “We don’t have as much self-knowledge as we’d like to think sometimes,” he says. Beattie used an adapted version of Greenwald’s implicit association test, based on the simple notion of how people associate ideas, to reveal the participants deepest held beliefs. If we truly, on an unconscious level, believe living the low-carbon life to be good, then we will associate a low-carbon object such as a hybrid car with a good outcome or a positive emotion. But his tests show that even those people who say low-carbon living is good often actually don’t believe it.

In a series of experiments, Beattie and his research assistant Laura Sale filmed people talking about their carbon choices. With consistency the participants gestured to one side or the other when talking about low-carbon or high-carbon choices. And, with consistency, when asked about their choices, 43% of them said that of course they would choose a low-carbon option, while gesturing to the imaginary ‘high-carbon’ side. Beattie says they call such people “green fakers”. To his surprise he learnt that he is in this camp. He recalls saying to Sale that he cares deeply about low-carbon choices. Then she tested him, “and she said, ‘I’m sorry; you don’t’.” Of course, Beattie does care on a conscious level, but he says that the tests are “very hard to fake” and reveal “spontaneous behaviours in which you are not really reflecting for a long time on the decision you are going to make.”

All this suggests that we have barriers to deal with in ourselves. Some social scientists now argue that understanding how we care on an emotional level, known in the field as ‘affect’, is the only way to motivate society to change its energy use. “If we are recognizing a gap between what people say and what they value,” says Renee Lertzman, a climate and behaviour consultant at Portland State University, “we want to understand what’s going on with people: conflict dilemmas, contradictions, ambivalence.” In other words, we need to psychoanalyse people a little bit, she acknowledges, and understand the gloomy, melancholy side of how people are facing climate change.

It’s certainly clear that humans are a complicated species — aware only of some of our motivations and flawed at directing our actions. Murtagh has found this true both in her research and as Ben’s mother. “Ben would rather have been driven and was slightly envious of Jack. I realised that children are just as prone to laziness as we adults are,” she says. But then another motivating factor, perhaps status, pulled the neighbour Jack in a new direction. “Interestingly, when Jack turned ten, he started walking with friends, although his Mum still drives his eight-year-old sister,” Murtagh says. “We all have multiple identities: I am a woman, a mother, a worker, a sports fan, for example. And how I travel is related to these,” she says. “So when I drive to work, it may be because, not only do I want to be a good employee and get there on time, but I want to be a good mother and collect my children from school, and buy a present for my husband’s birthday on the way. In a nutshell, we drive to be who we are.”


About This Article

My editor for this piece was Olive Heffernan, who had edited a website, Nature Reports Climate Change, before Nature group launched this magazine in March 2011. This article brings together many of my interests: how people actually live (as opposed to how power plants or politicians predict they will live), and the tremendous potential in curbing global energy use through human behavior. View this article on the Nature website.

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