Off the Cuff: Shazeen Attari, expert on the psychology of resource consumption

Maddie Stocker, News Editor

Shahzeen Attari, assistant professor at the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University Bloomington, sat down with the Review this week to talk about energy consumption, motivations in social dilemmas, and the paper she will publish on Monday. Attari visited Oberlin to give a talk titled ‘Public Perceptions of Electricity and Water Use.’ 

How did you become interested in energy policy and efficiency?

I actually started off as a Physics and Math major at [University of Illinois at] Urbana-Champaign, and I volunteered for nature conservancy one spring break as an undergrad, and I realized that [there were] many interesting questions about the environment. I actually grew up in the Middle East, in Dubai, which has the largest footprint per capita, and given my background and my interest in the environment I said, ‘Alright, maybe I should apply my background to environmental issues.’ Then I went to Carnegie Melon for my Ph.D., and I looked at climate change and realized that a lot of people were working on supply side issues, such as efficiency, clean coal carbon capture sequestration, things like that, and nobody was looking at the demand sight, the human response. So that’s how I started to get interested in human behavior.

I understand that you believe that understanding the relationship between human behavior and resource use is vital. Can you explain that?

So we’re sitting in this room… the lights are on, there’s heating, there’s a bunch of different energy that we’re using. Do you have any idea how much energy we’re using right now?

I don’t, no.

Most people don’t. Even physicists sometimes have trouble understanding because there [are] so many different calculations that we need to use. If we don’t know how much we’re using, how do we know what we need to change to decrease how much we use? So I think that one way of looking at it is that it’s really vital to understand how we understand energy, and how we understand water. These are two vital resources that we use every day without fail; you and I have probably used energy and water a lot today, and we need to understand how people conceive of these — how they understand them, how they use them, what they perceive about how much they use — in order to be able to change consumption.

Do you know how much energy we’re using right now?

[Laughs.] It would take me a couple of minutes to figure it out. I’d need to figure out how efficient these walls are; how much heat loss do we have through the windows; what types of lights are these; how many of them; what’s the efficiency of the lights; the heating; what type of heat storage do we have; how is the heat being pumped through the building; what is the efficiency of the whole building in general; what is the leakage — it’s really hard.

Your study has to do with energy curtailment versus energy efficiency improvements within the realm of public perception and how that same perception applies to water usage. Can you talk a little bit about that?

What we found was — and this is a paper that’s coming out this Monday, so we’re really excited — that when people are asked what the single most effective thing they can do to decrease their energy consumption, roughly 20 percent of our participants said turning off the lights. While turning off the lights is good, it’s not the single most effective thing you can do. There are more efficient actions, like carpooling with others, using public transit, changing the thermostat settings on your thermostat, so on and so forth. But something very simple, easy and effortless comes to mind, such as turning off the lights. When you look at water, the single most effective thing, roughly 40% to 50% of our participants said shorter showers. Shorter showers are certainly good, much more effective than turning off the lights, but again as the single most effective thing, it’s actually retrofitting your toilets. So what we find is that when people ask what the single most effective thing they can do [is] they just think about curtailment, which is doing the same behavior but just doing less of it, as opposed to switching to efficiency, which is keeping the same behavior but just switching technology. So that’s the big upfront finding between the two.

If people did know that energy efficient improvements were better for the environment than energy curtailments, do you think that would change their actions?

That’s a really fascinating question. If we think about why we don’t act, we can think about two different models. One is the information deficit model, and one is the motivation deficit model. In the first model, we don’t know, therefore we don’t do.  We lack the information. In the second model, we know, but we’re just not motivated enough to do it. So I actually think that with energy and water, both of these models come into being. We might not know what is very effective, and we might not be motivated enough to change the behavior. We need to figure out what the motivation and information landscape looks like in order to change behaviors.

One of your current interests is factors that motivate action in social dilemmas. What are some of the factors that you’ve come across while exploring this topic?

Let me start with what is a social dilemma. A social dilemma is where a private interest is at odds with collective interests. So for example, donating blood. It hurts to donate blood; you stick a needle in yourself, but it’s for the greater good. Donating to NPR. You and I can listen to NPR, we’re not required to donate to NPR, but why is it that so many people donate to NPR? Why do so many people donate blood? Why is it that people conserve energy or buy energy efficient technologies? All of these are social dilemmas because your private interest, which is your own self-interest, is at odds with collective interest. What I’m curious about is what motivates us to cooperate and do the action for the collective good versus be selfish and not do the action for the collective good? That’s what I’m working on right now: trying to understand what factors motivate and demotivate action in social dilemma settings.

And what have you found?

So far, for donating blood — and I’ll leave the punch line for when the paper comes out because we’re still in the midst of analysis — what do you think is the main reason that people don’t donate blood?

Maybe it’s primarily a product of laziness?

Well what we’ve found is that people are really afraid of needles. And the second reason was ineligibility. Most people think they’re ineligible because of weight issues, prior tattoos, sexual orientation; you name it. That’s the way they rationalize it. When they’re asked why they do or don’t donate, that’s what we find. The main reason that people do donate is because they think it’s the right thing to do. Because it gives them warm glow; they feel good about themselves. We’re actually looking at five separate social dilemmas, and we’re trying to look at within participants, what is the reason that people donate or do not donate, or contribute or do not contribute.

There are tons of theories about how the public should best regulate their energy use. As somebody who has explored the hard science aspect as well as the social aspect, what’s your view of how energy should be regulated?

That’s a great question. Top-down regulations are great, but we haven’t had a lot of top-down regulations in the climate change area, especially in regards to individual behavior. So let’s take top-down regulations and say that they’re extremely effective, but I can’t really study them because they haven’t come to pass, so let’s put them aside. Then let’s look at soft regulations, things like changes in default. For example, I can nudge you in a paternalistic way, and influence your behavior. And that has actually shown to be extremely effective. That’s something people are actively studying. I can also use social norms to change your behavior. For example, Bob Cialdini is a preeminent social psychologist who basically uses social comparisons. Like, if you know how much energy you use compared to your most energy efficient neighbor, and I can either give you a smiley face if you’re using less and a frowny face if you’re using more. And people are actually very responsible to these types of mailings, so much so that they formed a company called OPower that uses social comparisons to get people to decrease energy consumption by 2 percent, and it was maintained over a very long time. 2 percent sounds small, but if you were to ramp it up to the whole United States, that would be a lot of energy. Then there’s also voluntary action. There are ways that you can create new social norms; they’re hard, and they’re very hard to predict. But that would be a sort of fascinating place to look at. But right now there’s a lot of active work on these soft regulations, on these paternalistic regulations, trying to nudge people in the right direction. And how do you improve that? [You] provide people better information, or better motivation to incorporate some of these actions.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

It would be great if more people started entering this world, especially amazing Oberlin undergrad students. I think a lot of work remains to be done, and it’s an area that’s ripe for research. So I guess that’s my last thought… come on down!