The Next Energy Revolution Will Be in Our Heads

Grabbing your bike to go to the store rather than driving is good on several levels, meaning it's more likely to stick as a habit. By Andrey Armyagov/Shutterstock

Turn out the lights. Don't forget your reusable bags. Take a two-minute shower. We environmentalists used to be good at nagging people about their behavior. And then something changed.

Despite years of haranguing our colleagues, friends, family and even total strangers, many of us realized that we really weren't making headway. People kept using plastic bags. Our better halves kept leaving the lights on.

Techno-fixes are forever

So the focus shifted to technological innovation and legislative change. And as I argued in a TreeHugger piece on techno-fixes versus behavior change, there's something to be said for this approach. LED lights are efficient, whether a homeowner turns them off or not. Solar power is clean, even if you waste some of it by leaving the TV on. And conversely, while you might convince someone to take a shorter shower, who's saying they won't revert to old behaviors once their attention shifts from the melting ice caps to something more immediate?

Whether it's massive improvements in energy efficiency or solar prices falling off a cliff, the techno-centric approach has yielded significant victories. Yet behavior change is undergoing somewhat of a renaissance too.

The return of 'green' behavior change

In an article for the Washington Post, Chris Mooney makes the case for why the next energy revolution won't be in wind and solar. It will be in our brains. And the primary example that Mooney gives is about as far from your treehugging stereotype as you might imagine — the U.S. military is embracing this concept in a big way:

As head of the Marines Corps’ five-year-old Expeditionary Energy Office, [Marine regimental commander Jim] Caley is tapping into one of the hottest trends in academic energy research: looking to use psychology and the behavioral sciences to find ways of saving energy by changing people — their habits, routines, practices and preconceptions. “The opportunities that we see on the behavioral side of the house are phenomenal,” Caley explained during a recent interview in his Pentagon office. “And they’re frankly less expensive than us trying to buy new equipment.”

Mooney goes on to point out that there are equally huge savings to be had in the civilian world. Convincing people to drive 60 mph, vs. 70, could save 2 percent of U.S. households' energy consumption. Adjusting thermostats a couple of degrees could save 2.8 percent. Changing washing machine settings another 1 percent. Pretty soon, it starts to add up to a significant amount of overall consumption.

Behavioral psychology and technology unite

What's interesting here, to me at least, is how this is no longer about an either/or equation between behavior change or technology. But rather how behavioral psychology, technology, and good communication are coming together to shift behavior patterns — often for reasons that have little to do with environmentalism per se.

Take the ubiquitous FitBit, for example. Billed as a way to encourage healthy lifestyles and to help people loose weight, it just so happens that it also encourages people to walk to the store, or take the stairs instead of the elevator. In other words, once you have a feedback loop that rewards you for moving more, you start incorporating physical exercise into your daily routine. And when you do that, it just so happens that you start to save a significant amount of fuel too.

Nudging toward better choices

The same goes for the new breed of "smart" thermostats. While they do indeed have some clever ways to control your heating and cooling more efficiently, much of their savings come from a carefully designed user experience that engages you in a simple lifestyle change. As I wrote in my review of Nest, auto-away and early-on features may be cool, but so too are the little "leafs" you earn for turning the thermostat down, or the energy reports you get showing your consumption for the day. Or the blanket they sell you to keep you cozy. None of it feels like nagging. Just a mildly gamified push toward better choices and lower energy bills.

In another marriage of technology and communication, activists and local authorities across the country are printing Walk [Your City] signs. While previous campaigns to encourage greener transportation might have focused on why you should reduce your emissions or not clog up our streets, Walk [Your City] takes a different approach — simply reminding people of how many minutes it will take to reach a landmark, or a restaurant, or a bar or library. The signs are created using an online platform that helps campaigners map routes, calculate walking times, and print custom signs — all in one place. Simple to use, easy to implement — and designed not to nag, but to shift perceptions of place and distance.

Understanding non-rational decision making

In the Washington Post piece, Mooney explains how behavioral psychology is helping inform these new approaches by simply dispelling the notion that we act on rational information alone. Instead, product designers and activists, sustainability managers and city planners are increasingly understanding that they must also account for our habits, our emotions, our social influences and our ability to cling to misinformation.

Part of the challenge is overcoming energy myths — that setting back your thermostat won't save you money, or that idling your car makes more sense than turning it off. Another part lies in "setting the default," meaning sending signals as to what behavior is the expected norm. When an airline asks if you'd like to opt in to carbon offsetting, for example, they'll get a small number of sign ons. If they ask you to check a box to opt out, however, you'll get a huge increase in uptake. Mooney explains how in the military, this might mean focusing on reengineering purchasing software to favor energy-efficient equipment:

You might think the best way to have the Navy or Marines purchase more energy-efficient equipment would be to simply instruct those responsible to do so. But Weber warns that in light of the status quo bias, it might be far better to simply change the software they use. “Think of a software system ... that makes an automatic recommendation, and the default would be the most energy-efficient one — but if that doesn’t meet your other requirements, you can go down the list,” says Weber. “But it makes your job simpler, by automatically sorting on that one dimension, unless you decide otherwise.”

From the way the military idles its airplanes to changing how ships maneuver through the water, there are countless examples in Mooney's piece that are worth reading. It's a fascinating account of an old idea that's making a comeback.

Embedding behavior change

For us environmentalists, this focus on behavior change represents both a return to old topics and an entirely new frontier. While we are back to chasing behavior change, we are no longer pursuing individual hearts and minds with the blunt tool of appealing to conscience. Rather, we are seeking to understand how design, communication, technology and culture motivate each of us to act like we do. And then we are seeking to shape everyday experiences to shift behavior for the better.

It's a subtle shift, but it's an important one. Not only are we more likely to inspire behavior change if we understand the decision-making process behind it, but we are also more likely to sustain behavior change if the initial cue is embedded in the environment, not the conscience of the individual.

And for behavior change to be sustainable, it does have to be sustained.