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Who Is More Likely To Conserve Energy? Understand Social Psychology To Increase Energy Efficiency

Who Is More Likely To Conserve Energy? Understand Social Psychology To Increase Energy Efficiency

From ASHRAE Journal Newsletter, September 12, 2017

By Mary Kate McGowan, Associate News Editor

Interdisciplinary work between engineers and social psychologists helps engineers better understand people’s energy use behaviors.

Traditionally, engineers have framed energy-efficiency technology around economic incentives, said Chien-fei Chen, Ph.D., a social psychologist from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. If a customer adopts a new energy-efficient technology or if they are more environmentally conscious, they could save money. People are believed to be rational in this model, said Chen.

But that is not the whole picture.

Energy use in American residences increased by 24% from 1990 to 2009, even with the development of energy-efficient technologies, according to Chen’s research. Residents’ energy behaviors are responsible for about 30% of the variance in overall heating consumption and 50% in cooling consumption, she reported.

Simply changing residents’ behaviors can create 10% to 20% in energy savings, according to the research.

Chen said social psychologists believe people are diverse, and they behave differently in different situations. People make decisions based on their political views, income, education background, and environmental concerns, among other demographic considerations.

Saving money is overwhelmingly the most reported reason American households want to reduce energy use, but “a desire to reduce global warming, protect the environment, feel better about oneself” are a few other reasons, according to her research.

Based on this, there are reasons, other than economics, why people want to reduce their energy use.

Understanding people’s motivations and mindsets can help increase energy savings as opposed to only using the traditional system of looking at the economics of energy-efficient technology and behaviors, she said.

Better knowing someone’s inclinations helps frame the benefits of energy efficiency, which increases the possibility of changing people’s behaviors, Chen said.


Some of Chen’s research focuses on various demographics that are more likely to conserve energy.

She has found that Democrats tend to be more energy conscious than Republicans, and women are more likely to conserve energy than men.

Based on household income, middle-class families are more likely to conserve energy than both low-income and high-income households for various reasons, Chen said.

The average U.S. household typically spends about 4% of their income on utility costs while low-income households spend about 26% of their income on utility costs. One of the reasons for the jump is low-income households might not be able to afford new technologies that are more energy-efficient, according to the research.

People who live in colder climates tend to conserve more energy than those who live in warmer climates, she said. This comparison can be attributed to different reasons: the South tends to have cheaper electricity prices making it is not as economically important to use less energy, according to Chen.

Chen said it is sometimes hard to tease out different demographic details as many are interconnected. For example, people who are older tend to have more money than younger people, which can affect how much energy they conserve, Chen said. Age also affects education level, household size, income level and the size of their home, she said.


Chen has also studied how people accept a new technology, and trust and a sense of control proved to be pivotal factors.

Chen’s “Beyond Technology: Improving Occupants’ Energy Efficiency Behaviors through Social-Psychological Analysis” presentation during a seminar at the 2016 ASHRAE Winter Conference in Orlando, Fla., highlighted a comparison study between New York and Tokyo’s uses of smart home management systems and smart meters.

A focus group showed Americans are less likely to trust utility companies than the Japanese, Chen said. Perceived cost, another technology attribute, had no impact.

But trust does, even if the new technologies stabilize the power grid and are environmentally conscious. “If you don’t trust your utility company, then you probably won’t allow them to automatically control your appliances,” when occupants are not at home or during peak energy hours, she said.

The lack of trust with utility companies can spill into other energy-efficiency programs. When those companies promote energy savings programs, people are not likely to sign up for those programs if they do not trust the company, she said.


Regardless of which demographic groups a person falls into, if someone wants to conserve energy, they can.

“People behave differently in different situations,” she said. Because of that, it is important to not generalize “typical” types of behaviors all the time.

That makes it harder for engineers to predict and understand human behavior, and engineers prefer to see concrete numbers when designing and installing systems, she said.

“However, from my perspective, that could be short-term. Long-term wise, I think people believe attitudes still will keep people conserving energy,” Chen said.

Only consumers and occupants can change their mindsets and behaviors, so considering human behavior—while complicated and not fully predictable—can help increase energy-efficiency technologies’ use and effectiveness, according to Chen.

“I’m trying to answer this ‘why’ question and not just ‘what’,” she said.