Psychology and Social Science Inform Climate Campaigns


August 11, 2009

Polar Bear animation
Animated figures, like these bears at Dartmouth, help students connect their behavior to real world impacts. (Dartmouth College)
Schools are tapping into the power of the mind when it comes to environmental campaigns. By integrating social science theories into their messaging and tactics, such as showing a “greener” side to President Obama or making animated polar bears happy, students and faculty are looking for new ways to effectively promote conservation-minded behaviors.

In 2007, the University of Rhode Island (URI) launched an $18 million energy efficiency and conservation initiative that was designed to save more than seven million kilowatt-hours of electricity and 42 million pounds of steam (used for heating buildings and water) every year. A major component of the program’s success rested on a behavior change campaign.

“We work with a psychologist from NORESCO,” says Andy Alcusky, project manager in the URI utilities department, “and he sent out surveys to the students about their lifestyles, about leaving lights on, computers on, TVs on and so forth.” The survey showed that students engaged in about 30 different behaviors that waste energy, but three in particular were the most common, and most wasteful: shower length, leaving computers on and leaving heating/air conditioning on when not in the room.

To address these behaviors, Scott Finlinson, the psychologist and coordinator of the project for NORESCO, engages over one hundred resident assistants at URI three times a year, giving them a presentation and hand-out materials to use with their fellow students to effect behavior change in these three targeted areas.

“If we can change just three of the most energy-wasting behaviors,” says Finlinson, “what we find is that we get desirable movement on all behaviors. It’s a phenomenal phenomenon, and I love it. It happens every time we do it.”

Through tracking pre- and post-program behaviors, students at URI showed a 94 percent improvement in turning off their computers and a 44 percent improvement turning off their heating/air conditioning. The overall average for the study, which measured nine different energy-conserving behaviors, showed a 22 percent increase in students who claim they now engage in these behaviors often or always.

Last spring, students at California State University-Northridge (CSUN) used a little “Presidential” power to change just one wasteful behavior: throwing trash in a recycling bin. Members of CSUN’s Psi Chi, a National Honor Society in Psychology, helped the school with its recycling efforts by placing a single recycling bin on the third floor of their classroom building. By state law, CSUN is required to divert half of its waste from landfills, so the students’ project would be a great help to the volunteers who manage the campus’s recycling program, as they had been struggling to accommodate the entire school’s needs for recycling services.

What the students aimed to do is determine which type of message would most reduce the amount of trash that gets thrown into the recycling-only bin. They generated three different messages: a text-only sign that said, “No Trash, Please, Only Recyclables,” a sign with the same text and a stick-figure throwing a can of Coke in a bin, and lastly, a “photoshopped” image of President Obama recycling.

“They actually found really interesting results, as predicted by [the theory of] conformity,” says Erica Wohldmann, assistant professor of Psychology at CSUN. “They found that when the Obama sign was up they got significantly more recyclable items in the recycling bin than when the other signs were displayed.” When the stick figure sign was used, 48 percent of the total content collected was non-recyclable. When the text-only sign was used, it dropped to 36 percent; when President Obama chipped in, it dropped down to 28 percent.

“When we have a figure who is well-respected telling you something,” explains Wohldmann, “you’re more likely to conform to that behavior. It could also be an attention-based mechanism. [The Obama sign] captures your attention so people are more likely to see the sign, so there are a number of psychological theories that could account for it.”

The Psi Chi students, along with Wohldmann’s assistance, plan on continuing testing their theories in the coming year, and adding more recycling bins to their building.

Sad Polar Bear
Electricity usage in the Dartmought dorms is reported in real time, and the animated polar bear is happy or sad according to the amount of energy being conserved. (Dartmouth College)
“It was quite successful,” says Wohldmann. “They ended up taking out the recycling every single day and it was always full.”

The theory of conformity has several similarities to the social norms approach of psychology, which is a specialty of Dr. P. Wesley Schultz, professor of Psychology at California State University-San Marcos.

The social norms approach can be broken down into descriptive norms, which are concerned with what people actually do, and injunctive norms, which are concerned with what people feel is right.

Dr. Schultz published a study in 2007 that tested the injunctive norm in an energy use research project in nearly 300 California households. In the study, Schultz and others aimed at understanding the “boomerang effect” that happens when messaging that is intended to stop or reduce an action actually encourages it.

For example, in this study, half the homes were only given information about their energy use (descriptive norm) along with how that use compared with their neighbors, as well as some information on how to conserve energy. As a “boomerang effect,” homes that were already below-average in their energy use (i.e. actually conserving energy) started using more energy (roughly 0.89 kWh more per day) because they thought they had some to spare in relation to the neighborhood average, which, according to the study, shows “the destructive potential of social norms.”

The other group of residents Schultz studied were given the same information, plus an injunctive message: a smiley face emoticon if a home’s energy consumption was below-average and a frowning face if the home’s energy consumption was above-average. In this group, households that were already below-average stayed there (no “boomerang effect”), and homes that got the frowning face changed their behavior and began decreasing their energy consumption by an average of 1.72 kWh per day, which was a 40 percent greater reduction than the above-average households that received the descriptive-only message.

“The way that I think of it, in terms of a bigger picture,” explains Schultz, “is that if we think we’re the only one who is doing it, there’s not a lot of motivation there. But if we think there’s a larger collective impact, then we’re more motivated to engage in conservation.”

Lorie Loeb, a computer science professor at Dartmouth College, managed to motivate nearly the entire school to change their behavior toward energy use and make a digitally-animated polar bear very happy.

“I was interested in the idea of using feedback, because feedback works,” says Loeb about the impetus for launching her project. Feedback, as Loeb refers to it, essentially means an injunctive norm (although Loeb’s project developed without her having any prior knowledge of Dr. Schultz’s “emoticon” study).

“Students here at Dartmouth, and in most schools,” says Loeb, “get no feedback about energy use, so I wanted to come up with a way of providing feedback that would be meaningful to students. They don’t get any kind of a charge for their electric bill at the end of the month, and their tuition doesn’t depend on how much electricity they use.”

What Loeb created was an animated polar bear that was “plugged in” to real-time energy meters. Using a complex algorithm for averaging energy usage during different times of the day, the computerized polar bear would either smile and be happy if energy use was below-average or begin to sweat and fall through cracked, melting ice if energy use was above-average. Students could check in on the bear from their personal computers or by watching a monitor placed on their floor.

Happy Polar Bear
A happy "Bula the Bear" plays with a butterfly way outside of its own habitat. Students modulate their electricity usage to keep Bula smiling. (Dartmuth College)
“People could see that there was something bigger than themselves,” says Loeb, “and we could get some kind of an emotional connection between the students and the bear in order to encourage them and motivate them to change their behavior.”

The prototype project was launched in two dorms in April 2008. The bear’s health was only linked to the students’ electricity plug-load and their lighting, but energy use went down 14 percent in one dorm and 22 percent in the other by the end of the semester.

Students simply fell in love with the bear, according to Loeb, naming him “Bula.” Bula is even due to have his own Facebook page by the beginning of the fall semester.

The bear has now been plugged into 11 dorms on campus, and in the larger residence halls each floor has its own bear so floors and halls can compete with one another by how well they care for their bear. The overall average energy savings for these dorms is about 10 percent, “which is quite significant for feedback systems,” says Loeb.

In a survey given out before the program launched, 60 percent of Dartmouth students said they didn’t really think about the environment. After Bula the bear joined the campus, a follow-up survey showed that 80 percent of the students changed how they felt about the environment and thought about it when they went to use electricity. For a polar bear that resides only in the electrical world, he sure is making a strong case for students to use a lot less of it.

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Published: August 11, 2009