Meeting 4/25/2012: Jason Zietz (L3D) — Understanding the Impacts of Emotions and Decision-Making on Environmental Behaviors

Given the overwhelming evidence that current energy use by humans contributes to global warming, reducing our non-renewable energy consumption is a worthwhile endeavor.  But in order to reduce our consumption we must first better understand it, and unfortunately the implications of our usage largely go unnoticed.  This ignorance is likely rooted in the interactions most of us have with our energy bills: once a month we attempt to make sense of our consumption via the nebulous kilowatt-hours (kWh) and therms for electricity and gas usage, respectively, but since we do not understand what the units actually represent and the usage cannot be tied to specific activities, we do little but pay our bill and wait until the next month to repeat the process.

We can start to address this energy ignorance by helping people to understand that their energy consumption has real-world repercussions, thus making energy usage more personally meaningful.  Presenting energy usage metrics with equivalent alternative representations of usage such as pounds of coal burned and/or pounds of CO2 emitted establishes a salient link between the energy we use and the impacts on the world around us.  These alternative representations potentially cue emotional responses that can affect the decisions that we make and ultimately lead to long-term pro-environmental behavior change.

This talk will begin with some general discussion about how we make decisions and how they impact our behaviors, specifically those affecting consequential behaviors such as those related to environmental, health, and financial concerns.  I will then describe two studies in which alternative representations of energy usage are tested: In the first study, emotional reactions to the alternative representations of electricity usage will be explored, along with how these representations affect a person’s willingness to publicly commit to a pro-environmental action.  The second study examines how anchors and units of adjustment along with these alternative representations modify individuals’ stated willingness to take a pro-environmental action.