Research Summary

Clustering energy and water conservation behaviors as choices: examining the moderating roles of message elaboration and involvement

Optional conservation recommendations are more effective than mandates

Applied Environmental Education & Communication
2021

Energy and water conservation recommendations ask individuals to conserve their use of these utilities, such as turning off the lights when leaving a room. Research shows that people need a reasonable number of options to give them agency and limit indecision. Listing five behaviors as examples rather than making them seem mandatory might improve the outcome. The elaboration likelihood model (ELM) says a person’s elaboration of a message, or how much conscious effort they put into understanding the message, influences how deeply they can be persuaded. Issue involvement (how relevant an issue is to a person) can hugely impact their elaboration. The researchers in this study sought to test if these three variables – choice provision, message elaboration, and issue involvement – were positively associated with intent to conserve energy or water and whether there are interactions between the three variables.

The researchers sent two online surveys (one for water, one for energy) through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (MTurk) software program to English-speaking adults (age 18 years or older) in the United States with high (> 80%) ratings in the program. The surveys brought in 857 respondents (402 for energy and 455 for water), 60% of which were female, 76.3% white, and 66% college-educated, with diverse household income ranges. Each survey presented a 100-word message encouraging five water- or energy-conserving behaviors, such as limiting shower time or keeping thermostats at seasonal temperatures. Different survey versions were deployed and included either a choice (“Consider taking the following steps … Choose the options that best fit your lifestyle”) or no choice (“You must take the following steps … you have to do all of these”) to measure choice provision. Additional questions had a 5-point scale to measure respondents’ issue involvement and intent to conserve.

The researchers used statistics from the survey data to test the impact of choice provision, message elaboration, and issue involvement on respondents’ intent to conserve water or energy. They also identified any correlations or interactions between those variables and controlled for demographic influences (for example, women were more likely to conserve water or energy than men) on the data. The analysis found that for both water and energy, message elaboration and issue involvement each had a significant impact on respondents’ intent to conserve and significantly impacted one another. Choice provision had no significant impact on intent to conserve. The findings suggested that message elaboration and issue involvement are interrelated and play a large role in influencing individuals to conserve. However, choice provision emerges as an important predictor of intent to conserve for individuals with low message elaboration and low issue involvement.

This study had limitations. All conservation behaviors were focused on limiting consumption rather than improving efficiency with new technology. The research sample was highly skewed demographically and not representative of the broader population. Finally, the study measured self-reported intent to conserve as a proxy for conservation behavior, which may not reflect actual behavior.

This study found that disengaged people are more likely to adopt conservation behaviors if they are presented as optional recommendations as opposed to mandatory dictates. The researchers suggested that conservation recommendations should distinguish between high-involvement and low-involvement individuals and emphasize choice provision for the latter, while being conscious of the cognitive effort required to understand their messaging.

The Bottom Line

Many environmental education efforts seek to inform citizens of ways to reduce energy and water consumption, but how those are received and put into action by citizens is less understood. Through an online survey distributed to users of Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (MTurk) program, this study examined choice provision (how behaviors were presented), message elaboration (the cognitive effort required to process the message), and issue involvement (personal connection to the issue) as parameters impacting citizens’ conservation behaviors. The survey data showed that message elaboration and issue involvement are interrelated and have the largest impact on individuals’ intent to conserve. However, choice provision emerges as an important predictor of intent to conserve for individuals with low message elaboration and low issue involvement. The researchers suggested that conservation recommendations should distinguish between high-involvement and low-involvement individuals and emphasize choice provision for the latter.