Congress has held countless hearings on the energy technologies of tomorrow, said U.S. Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash.) in opening a recent hearing of the House Subcommittee on Research and Science Education. But what it hasn't talked about is how changes in behavior can start making a big dent in our energy challenge. That changed when APA member Baird was appointed chair of the Subcommittee on Research and Science Education last January. As such, he now holds the decision-making gavel over the agenda of the subcommittee. Baird had already been recognized for his defense of peer review and his understanding that the social and behavioral sciences are necessary to ensure that the United States remains competitive on the global science and technology stage. But more recently, he has assumed a leadership role in examining how social sciences can contribute to the grand challenges of our time.
At a Sept. 25 hearing, "The Contribution of the Social Sciences to the Energy Challenge," witnesses responded to a variety of questions, including: What have you learned about what influences the decisions individuals make with respect to energy use? How can this research be used more effectively to inform policy? What basic social psychological research questions relevant to the energy challenge remain unanswered? Are there as yet undeveloped or underdeveloped technologies or methodologies that would help advance this research?
"A simple change in a written message to hotel guests asking them to reuse their towels could save 39 barrels of oil and 72,000 gallons of water in a single average-size hotel in one year," said Baird. "If you multiply that by all of the hotels in all the cities in this country, that adds up to real energy savings."
That data was a nod to research on descriptive social norms conducted within the hospitality industry by Robert Cialdini, PhD, a psychology professor at Arizona State University. In his research, Cialdini compared the behavior of hotel guests after varying the content of the note cards in hotel bathrooms. All the messages were aspirational: "Help save the environment," "Help save resources for future generations," "Partner with us to help save the environment," and "Join your fellow citizens in helping to save the environment." The first three messages were followed by information stressing respect for nature, the need to conserve energy for the future, and cooperating with the hotel to save the environment, but only the last one, which indicated that the majority of fellow guests re-used their towels, increased the number of guests who actually did.
Also testifying at the hearing was Duane Wegener, PhD, who described research on attitude strength--or the features of attitudes that make them likely to influence behavior--as well as his work with Kevin Blankenship, PhD, on the influence of values on processing of communications. Wegener also discussed his work at the Energy Center at Discovery Park, Purdue University, where social scientists work with engineers in the early phases of research and development on a range of energy issues. In doing so, he hopes to help identify potential roadblocks to new energy technologies--such as the acceptance of genetically engineered biofuels--before they hit the market. Wegener's group recently received a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to support the work of the center via NSF's Human and Social Dynamics program.
Both psychologists' testimony was well-received and helped subcommittee members, and a packed hearing room, appreciate the breadth and reach of psychological research.
APA's Science Government Relations staff worked closely with Drs. Cialdini and Wegener in the weeks prior to the hearing to help them construct testimony and to facilitate their appearance before the subcommittee. APA is extremely grateful to them for taking the time and energy to provide such compelling testimony and to Chairman Brian Baird for his visionary leadership on behalf of psychological science.
Dr. Geoffrey Mumford is assistant executive director of government relations for science.