Highlights of the 2009 Behavior, Energy, and Climate Change Conference

By Nicolle Singer

The third annual Behavior, Energy, and Climate Change (BECC) Conference took place on November 15-18, 2009, in Washington, DC.  More than 600 climate change researchers, policymakers, and utility industry officials gathered to share information and ideas about how to respond to energy and climate change challenges.  The contributions of psychology and other behavioral and social sciences was a leading theme of the conference’s major sessions as well as in informal discussions among participants.

Making choices: The role of defaults

In a keynote address, Dan Ariely, professor of behavioral economics at Duke University, considered ways by which people can be encouraged to engage in environmentally responsible behavior.  He noted that humans have limitations in their physical abilities and have created devices to help them cope with those limitations (such as clothing, vehicles, and pots and pans).  Behavioral scientists have demonstrated that people also have limitations in their mental abilities, and so new devices and heuristics need to be designed to help them cope with those limitations in nondestructive ways.  For example, psychologists have shown that people often view the easy choice among possible behaviors as the one that is preferred or implicitly recommended to them.  Thus government, business, and other institutions can guide individuals toward pro-environment behaviors by making such behaviors the default, easy choice.

Elke Weber, professor at the Columbia University Center for Research on Environmental Decisions and coauthor of a recent APA report on psychology and global change, also discussed default choices.  She pointed to research showing that the first presented option is often seen as the default and that people generate more reasons to support selection of the first option.  This bias can be exploited to nudge people toward pro-environment behaviors.  Weber also spoke about the need for institutions to take into account other research findings in addressing problems, such as that people generally focus their concerns on a limited set of social problems at a time and they tend toward taking single actions, rather than changing broad patterns of behavior. The Columbia Center’s new guide on the psychology of climate change communication builds on these ideas. 

As an example of the power of default choices, the conference organizers reported on the results of an experiment conducted at the conference itself.  The electronic registration form that conference participants completed was designed so that the vegetarian, low-carbon-producing lunch option was listed before the meat option and was pre-checked.  About 80% of conference participants chose the vegetarian over the meat option, in contrast to only 5-10% of participants who selected the vegetarian option at previous BECC conferences.

The self and the environment

Doug McKenzie-Mohr, professor of psychology at St. Thomas University, Canada, presented his research showing that people are more likely to switch to pro-environment behaviors if they are told about the personal benefits they will gain by engaging in such behaviors than if they are told about the environmental impacts of their behaviors.  He suggested that changing behaviors can change self-concept as well and thereby promote similar behaviors in the future.  In another line of research, McKenzie-Mohr has examined the role of person-to-person contact in encouraging behavior change.  He has shown, for example, that such contact can be more effective than signs or fliers in getting people to turn off their cars’ engines while waiting in parking lots.

From a psychodynamic perspective, Seth Robbins, a psychiatrist and business consultant in San Francisco, discussed widespread narcissism and materialism within the US population as a root cause of high energy use and climate change.  But, he noted, people are also becoming more aware of the seriousness of climate change and its potential impact on their lives.  Robbins proposed that narcissism at the individual and cultural levels can be harnessed to motivate people to change the way they live.  Narcissism can help people believe that they have the power to solve large, complex problems such as climate change. 

From science to policy

US Congressman Brian Baird (D-Washington), who is a clinical psychologist and former psychology professor, gave a plenary address emphasizing the need to change the public’s understanding of global climate change, suggesting that the phenomenon be renamed “global over-heating.”  He discussed how many people, especially in the winter, think that warming would be pleasant, but that over-heating always creates an image that people find undesirable.  Baird also called for researchers and policy-makers to appeal to people’s higher selves and their ideals when prompting them to behave in environmentally friendly ways.

In a separate panel session on translating ideas into policy, Katrina Lassiter from Rep. Baird’s office described the effort in Congress to create a new office on behavioral and social science research within the Department of Energy.  This proposal has been approved at the committee level and is awaiting a vote by the entire House.  Kevin Hurst of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy spoke about the need to involve the behavioral and social sciences in the design and promotion of the Smart Grid, an emerging electricity transmission system that will be responsive to household energy use patterns. And David Hungerford of the California Energy Commission provided tips to scientists on how they can communicate effectively to policy-makers through succinct executive summaries, policy analyses, and trade journal articles. 

Similarly, Rick Diamond of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory discussed how to change the minds of government officials who do not believe the social sciences have a role to play in solving the climate change problem.  He argued that these officials are often interested in social science issues, but do not have access to or do not understand social science research.  Diamond recommended that social scientists make a stronger effort to share their work with policy makers and scientists in other fields and focus on explaining their terminology and the real-world implications of their research.

From a business perspective, Hannah Choi Granade of McKinsey & Company addressed barriers to energy efficient behaviors and ways around them, drawing on the recent report, Unlocking Energy Efficiency in the U.S. Economy.  She pointed out that it is difficult to get people to act on the basis of abstract ideals such as energy efficiency, but people do act on emotional ideals such as love or community pride.  Thus the “Don’t Mess with Texas” anti-littering media campaign, which emphasized the damage litter was doing to people’s home state, was highly successful in reducing littering behavior. 

Next year

The next Behavior, Energy, and Climate Change Conference will be held on November 14-17, 2010, in Sacramento, California.  Sessions building on APA’s 2009 report, Psychology and Global Climate Change: Addressing a Multi-faceted Phenomenon and Set of Challenges, are being planned.