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Psychologists Testify at Energy Hearing

We in APA science advocacy have always been pleasantly surprised to hear from congressional staff that one or another subcommittee is interested in a behavioral science question, let alone eager to make it the focus of a hearing.

By Geoff Mumford

This month we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik. But the ripple effect produced by that 184- pound satellite was not limited to the space race; it also gave birth to one of our most important and enduring congressional committees - the House Science and Technology Committee. Established in 1957, it initially focused mostly on space issues but its jurisdiction grew over the years to include oversight of most of the non-defense, non-health federal research and development programs.

Given the breadth of its oversight responsibilities, we in APA science advocacy have always been pleasantly surprised to hear from congressional staff that one or another subcommittee is interested in a behavioral science question, let alone eager to make it the focus of a hearing. But with the change in majority accompanying the last election, APA member U.S. Rep. Brian Baird (D-WA) was appointed Chair of the Subcommittee on Research and Science Education. As such, he now holds the decision-making gavel over the agenda of the subcommittee. Chairman 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 US 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.

A prime example of that effort was Chairman Baird’s September 25 hearing, “The Contribution of the Social Sciences to the Energy Challenge,” to which he invited APA members Robert Cialdini and Duane Wegener to testify. Chairman Baird opened the hearing by saying, “This Committee and this Congress have held countless hearings on the energy technologies of tomorrow. What we don’t talk about is behavior – and how changes in behavior can start making a big dent in our energy challenge today.”

The hearing charter asked the witnesses to respond 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?

“One witness will tell you how 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. If you multiply that by all of hotels in all the cities in this country, that adds up to real energy savings. And that’s just because of a single, easy action on the part of hotel guests,” said Rep. Baird. That data was a nod to Cialdini’s research on descriptive social norms conducted within the hospitality industry

Cialdini compared the behavior of hotel guests after varying the content of the notecards we all find in our 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 (descriptive social norm) increased the number of guests who actually did so.

Wegener described the research on attitude strength (i.e., on features of attitudes that make them more vs. less capable of influencing behavior) as well as his recent research with Kevin Blankenship on the influence of values on processing of communications. He also discussed his role on a novel interdisciplinary team. Wegener is an Initiative Leader for Social, Economic, and Political Aspects of Energy Use and Policy with the Energy Center at Discovery Park, Purdue University, responsible for coupling social scientists with engineers in the early phases of research and development on a full range of energy issues. In doing so, he hopes to help identify potential roadblocks to the adoption of new energy technologies (for example - in 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 Social Dynamics (HSD) program.

Both psychologists’ testimony was well-received and helped Members of the Subcommittee, and a packed hearing room, appreciate the breadth and reach of psychological research. APA’s Science Government Relations staff worked closely with Cialdini and Wegener in the weeks prior to the hearing to help them construct testimony and to facilitate their appearance before the Subcommittee. We are extremely grateful to them for taking the time and energy to provide such compelling testimony and to Chairman Baird for his visionary leadership on behalf of psychological science.