Research Summary

Attitude-intention consistency in the context of energy and water conservation: Examining the moderating role of vested interest

Developing effective conservation messages for students and community members

Applied Environmental Education & Communication
2021

As the world faces more energy emissions and more frequent bouts of water scarcity, energy and water conservation messages by agencies and educators are important to inspire conservation-minded actions in people. However, people tend to be driven by their own motivation, or vested interest, to act. Many conservation messages typically do not consider the need of an individual’s vested interest, and therefore may fall flat in inspiring action. The researchers in this study aimed to understand the influence of vested interest in energy and water conservation and develop recommendations for conservation messages to encourage the intention to act in individuals.

Vested Interest theory (VIT) is based on the assertion that when a person is highly vested in something, the attitudes that person holds will affect their future behaviors on that topic. Essentially, the more personal consequence someone assigns to something, the more likely they are to link their attitudes with actions. VIT is comprised of five parts: 1) stake, the perceived gains or losses based on a person’s behavior based on a particular topic; 2) salience, the convenience of performing a behavior; 3) immediacy, the perceived time between an action and a consequence; 4) certainty, the perceived likelihood of certain consequences for an action; and, 5) self-efficacy, the individual’s confidence in performing that behavior. The relationship among these five components determines the likelihood of someone acting upon their vested interest. If the relationship is low, then the likelihood of action is low because the link between attitudes and behavior is low. When these relationships are strong, the likelihood of action is high because the link between attitudes and behavior is high.

The researchers surveyed 432 students from a university in the Midwestern United States. The participants were split into 2 groups with 215 students surveyed on energy conservation and 217 students surveyed on water conservation. In the energy conversation group, participant ages ranged from 18 to 30-years-old, and 47.4% of the respondents paid their own electricity bills. In the water conservation group, participant ages ranged from 18 to 39-years-old, and 31.2% paid their own water bills. For each survey group, participants 1) answered pre-test questions that included the five VIT components; 2) saw a random message about energy or water conservation; 3) answered questions about that message along with their emotions, attitudes, and intentions to act based on that message; and, 4) answered demographic questions. The energy conservation respondents either saw a message about not using too much air conditioning or heat, waiting to dry full loads of laundry in a dryer, or turning off electronics and unplugging appliances when not in use. The water conservation respondents either saw a message about flushing toilets only when needed, waiting to wash full loads of laundry in a washing machine, or taking shorter, cooler showers. Four of the five components of vested interest on the survey were measured by a four-item scale, while one component (self-efficacy) was measured on a six-item scale. Attitudes about energy or water conservation were measured with a six-item scale while the intention to act energy or water conservation was measured with a three-item scale. These survey scores were analyzed to reveal the intention to act as the outcome variable.

For the energy conservation group, the researchers found the following to be significant predictors of the intention to act: gender, paying an energy bill, attitude, and salience. In the water conservation group, attitude, salience and self-efficacy, and the relationship between attitude and immediacy as well as attitude and self-efficacy were significant predictors of the intention to act. With regard to the relationship between immediacy and attitude and self-efficacy and attitude, immediacy was most important when attitudes are low while self-efficacy was connected with increased intention to act at both high and low levels of attitude. Overall, the five components of VIT were positively correlated with higher intentions to act across both survey groups. Salience was the most prominently significant variable in intention to act for both energy and water conservation. For example, people typically weigh the environmental and health benefits to conserving energy as much more impactful than the financial benefits. Self-efficacy was the second most prominently significant variable in intention to act for both water conservation. For example, self-efficacy is a key factor in conserving water during water scarcity events.

There were limitations in this study. First, the researchers acknowledged there was more inconsistency in measuring some of the VIT components than anticipated, meaning that the results may not be as reliable as intended. Second, the messages used in the surveys were promotional rather than regulatory, demonstrating the need for validity against perceived actions taken to conserve versus actual actions taken to conserve through consumption measurements. Finally, the sample of university students resided in a state with comparatively low energy consumption and water scarcity. Therefore, the results of this study are not generalizable.

The researchers recommended that leveraging salience in energy and water conservation messages might increase the tendency for individuals to act on those messages. Messengers should also consider underlining the immediate benefits to conservation for the individual, and the environment and health of the individual’s local community. Further, the researchers suggested that water conservation messages include efficacy signals to increase the intention to act. One way that messengers can help reiterate immediacy and self-efficacy is by providing feedback directly to consumers on a regular schedule through various communication technologies.

The Bottom Line

People tend to be driven by their own motivation, or vested interest, to act, which is important for agencies and educators to consider in messaging as the world faces more energy emissions and more frequent bouts of water scarcity. The researchers sought to understand the role of Vested Interest Theory (VIT) in energy and water conservation and develop recommendations for conservation messages to encourage the intention to act in individuals. From the 432 surveys distributed to university students, the researchers found salience and self-efficacy to be the most significant factors in both energy and water conservation, respectively. Thus, the researchers recommended that leveraging salience in energy and water conservation messages might increase the tendency for individuals to act on those messages. Further, the way that messengers can help reiterate immediacy and self-efficacy is by providing feedback directly to consumers on a regular schedule through various communications.