Research Summary

Engaging with energy reduction: Does a climate change frame have the potential for achieving broader sustainable behaviour?

Cost or Carbon? Effects of Language for Motivating Energy Reduction

Journal of Environmental Psychology

To meet ambitious global climate change goals, energy reduction is paramount. This study, therefore, focuses on how communicating energy usage encourages the public to conserve energy. Specifically, the authors of this paper investigated whether it is more effective to emphasize financial benefits or environmental benefits from energy reduction, such as reduced carbon dioxide emissions. Determining effective communication regarding energy usage may have greater payoffs beyond reducing energy consumption; it may cause behavioral spillover, where additional environmental behaviors are enacted. With this in mind, the authors investigated different ways to communicate information on energy consumption to see if there is the potential for behavioral spillover. They also investigate how different values—both environmental and financial—influence the potential for pro-environmental behavioral spillover.

Research has noted cross-cultural social values, which are predictive of behavior. For example, altruistic values are linked with sustainable behaviors, while egocentric values lead to behaviors motivated by wealth. These values are contradictions of each other—the enhancement of one could lead to a decrease in the other. While these social values tend to be relatively stable and consistent throughout a lifetime, messages and experiences can prime values and encourage a particular behavior. For example, priming participants with images of money led to less collaborative and helpful behavior. To determine how values are influenced through communication, the study used three different primers, or metrics, for communicating energy usage to their participants: energy used in kilowatt-hours (kWh), cost of energy in pounds (£), or carbon dioxide emitted (CO2). From this communication, they were able to determine any shift in values and the potential for behavioral spillover, with regard to behaviors such as recycling or reducing driving.

Two studies were conducted with randomized groups of undergraduates, 170 total, enrolled in UK universities. Participants of each study completed pre- and post-tests measuring individual values. They also self-reported their daily energy use with an online Home Energy Calculator (HEC), completed a budget allocation task measuring their propensity to behave environmentally, and engaged in a post-study debrief. The HEC provided to each participant measured and communicated energy usage using one of the three primers: kWh, £, or CO2. Using this online simulation, participants reflected on how they could reduce their energy usage by 5% by altering their daily activities. Immediate feedback reflecting these changes in energy usage was communicated to the participant in terms of the three primers. Participants were asked to reflect on why it was important to them to reduce their energy usage: cost savings or environmental impact?

The HEC simulation influenced participants’ motivations for reducing their energy depending on how the information was communicated. When energy information was communicated through kWh or cost, participants were more likely to give cost as their reason for reducing their energy usage. Conversely, when CO2 was the metric used, participants claimed they reduced their usage for environmental purposes. Notably, the participants who received information in financial terms were the most likely to claim that energy is not worth saving. There was no significant behavioral spillover effect; however, participants who considered energy in terms of CO2 in the pre-test questionnaire also tended to exhibit more environmental behaviors. Framing energy usage in terms of CO2 may make climate change more salient to the public and encourage additional thoughts about sustainability or environmental behaviors. However, the link between carbon dioxide, energy use, and climate change is abstract. Furthermore, people tend to think of climate change as being someone else’s responsibility to address, rather than seeing their own behavior as a meaningful and contributing factor.

The second study further investigated the extent to which the importance of financial issues and climate change influenced participants. In addition to engaging in all the tasks of the first study, participants completed a survey, which measured perceptions on energy use and the environment. Analysis of results demonstrated that framing energy in terms of CO2 led to a greater likelihood that people would consider climate change as a motivation to save energy. Additionally, when this connection was made, these participants, as opposed to those who interacted with the cost and kilowatt-hour versions of HEC, exhibited more environmental behavioral spillover. While these results illustrate great potential for communicating energy information through an environmental frame, additional studies communicating consumption in terms of both cost and carbon dioxide are needed.

The Bottom Line

What motivates people to reduce their energy usage: cost benefits or environmental reasons? This study suggests that if you emphasize the cost savings of reduced energy usage, people will internalize the idea that cost is the primary reason to make behavioral changes. On the other hand, emphasizing the CO2 emission savings of decreased energy use encourages people to see environmental reasons as the factor motivating them to make changes. It is important to keep these values in mind while teaching environmental education, as emphasizing environmental values can spill over and create other environmental behavioral changes beyond the one being targeted, such as recycling or driving less.