Contact FutureLearn for Support
Skip main navigation
We use cookies to give you a better experience, if that’s ok you can close this message and carry on browsing. For more info read our cookies policy.
We use cookies to give you a better experience. Carry on browsing if you're happy with this, or read our cookies policy for more information.

Interventions to promote a sustainable energy transition

In this article, psychological interventions used to promote sustainable energy behaviour will be discussed. These include structural and psychological strategies.

Reminder: this article is the second section of the article Steg, L., Perlaviciute, G., & Van der Werff, E. (2015). Understanding the human dimensions of a sustainable energy transition. Frontiers in Psychology, in press. The references for this article can be downloaded below.

Various studies have examined which interventions are effective to promote a sustainable energy transition. From the 1970s, these studies focused on reducing energy demand by encouraging household energy conservation behaviour and investments in energy efficiency, as to prevent the exhaustion of fossil energy sources. From the 1990s, these studies focused on reducing CO2 emissions. Whereas initially many studies focused on encouraging energy saving behaviour, recently more studies focused on promoting the adoption of energy saving technologies and ways to motivate households to balance their energy demand to the available supply of (renewable) energy. Below, we review the literature on interventions to encourage sustainable energy behaviour. We first discuss structural strategies that aim to enhance people’s ability and motivation to engage in sustainable energy actions, by making such actions relatively more attractive via incentives. After that, we discuss psychological strategies that aim to increase people’s ability and motivation to engage in energy saving actions without actually changing the costs and benefits of these actions.

Structural strategies

As indicated earlier, some sustainable energy behaviours involve some degree of discomfort or are financially costly. For example, putting on a sweater instead of turning on the heater or taking shorter showers can be perceived as less comfortable, and investing in home insulation involves initial financial investments. This implies that sustainable energy behaviours are oftentimes not pleasurable or rewarding (at least in the short term) as such. It is often assumed that people are not motivated to act sustainably unless some personal benefits are involved (Penn, 2003). This implies that external incentives would be needed to motivate people to engage in sustainable energy behaviour, such as subsidies, or special arrangements such as free parking spaces for electric cars (cf. Bolderdijk & Steg, 2015). Alternatively, external incentives could make unsustainable energy use more costly or less pleasurable, for example, by introducing taxes or laws. Incentives that are aimed at changing contextual factors that define the costs and benefits of sustainable energy choices are sometimes necessary to facilitate sustainable energy choices (Bolderdijk, Lehman, & Geller, 2012; Geller, 2002; Steg & Vlek, 2009). For example, only few people would be willing to purchase an energy efficient appliance that is more than twice as expensive as other options. Yet, perceptions of costs and benefits of behaviour are not always accurate. In such cases, it may be sufficient to change the perceptions of costs and benefits of options via information strategies that aim to correct such misperceptions (Abrahamse & Matthies, 2012; Steg & Vlek, 2009).

Strategies that mainly deliver and stress incentives may be less effective than sometimes assumed, and can sometimes even be counter-effective (Bolderdijk & Steg, 2015). Also, incentives provide a fickle basis for consistent sustainable energy choices when employed in isolation. They make people focus on immediate personal costs and benefits of behaviour (Steg, 2015; Steg et al., 2014a). Consequently, people will particularly engage in sustainable energy behaviours when such behaviour is extrinsically rewarding (De Groot & Steg, 2009). Indeed, it was found that positive effects of financial incentives to promote eco-driving disappeared as soon as the incentives were removed (Bolderdijk, Knockaert, Steg, & Verhoef, 2011). In addition, external incentives can inhibit positive spillover effects when such subsequent actions have no clear external rewards, which is not uncommon in the energy domain (Evans et al., 2012; Thøgersen, 2013). For example, people who focused on economic rather than environmental reasons for one pro-environmental act, in this case car- sharing, appeared to be less inclined to engage in another sustainable behaviour on a following occasion, in this case recycling (Evans et al. 2013). This implies that many different incentives need to be implemented to encourage wide-scale behaviour changes needed to realise a successful energy transition, each increasing the relative attractiveness of the specific behaviour targeted. This is overall not efficient and cost-effective. In addition, external incentives will only result in behaviour changes when such changes are perceived to be worth the effort (Bolderdijk & Steg, 2015). For example, appeals emphasising the financial benefits of tire pressure checks, which are modest, were not effective at all (Bolderdijk et al., 2013b). Many single sustainable energy behaviours yield small benefits and are therefore perceived as not worth the effort (Dogan, Bolderdijk, & Steg, 2014). For example, unplugging a single coffee machine or microwave would save less than 6 Euros a year. Hence, although targeting extrinsic motivations by introducing incentives may be needed to promote some sustainable energy behaviours, incentives are not likely to encourage people to engage in the many sustainable energy behaviours needed in a truly sustainable energy transition.

Psychological strategies

For this reason, it is also important to employ strategies that target or enhance motivation to engage in sustainable energy behaviour. Particularly strategies that target and strengthen individuals’ intrinsic motivation to engage in sustainable energy behaviour may be promising in this respect, as these strategies are more likely to result in durable behaviour changes.

To start with, information can be provided as to change consumers’ beliefs about and to increase their awareness of environmental and social problems caused by their behaviour, which may enable and motivate them to help reduce these problems by changing their behaviour. Research suggests that providing general information about energy problems and energy conservation indeed often leads to an increase in knowledge and awareness (Bradley, Waliczek & Zajicek, 1999; Staats, Wit, & Midden, 1996), but this increase in knowledge does not necessarily translate into behaviour changes (Abrahamse et al., 2005; Gardner & Stern, 2002; Geller, 1981; Staats et al., 1996). Information is more likely to encourage sustainable behaviour when it resonates with people’s central values. For example, whereas an environmental campaign increased knowledge among all exposed to the campaign, it only affected sustainable intentions and policy preferences for those who strongly endorsed biospheric values (Bolderdijk, Gorsira, Keizer, & Steg, 2013a). More generally, information strategies have been more successful when they are tailored to the needs, wants and perceived barriers of the target population (Abrahamse et al., 2005, 2007; Thøgersen, 2005). Besides, the effects of information provision depends on the sources of the information and how people evaluate those sources (Clayton, Devine-Wright, Stern, Whitmarsh, Carrico, Steg, Swim & Bonnes, in press); information is more likely to change beliefs and behaviour if people evaluate the source favourably and trust the source.

People can also learn about which personal actions are effective to promote a sustainable energy transition by providing them with feedback about their energy use or energy savings that they have realised. Feedback appears to be an effective strategy for reducing household energy use (e.g., Seligman & Darley, 1977; see Abrahamse et al., 2005, for a review), although some exceptions exist (e.g., Katzev, Cooper, & Fisher, 1980-81; see Fischer, 2008). Feedback is more effective when it is given immediately after the behaviour occurs, as this enhances people’s understanding of the relationship between the feedback and their behaviour (Geller, 2002). Also, research suggests that the more frequently the feedback is given, the more effective it is. Positive effects have for instance been found for continuous feedback (e.g., McClelland & Cook, 1979-80). Smart meters offer possibilities for providing immediate and frequent feedback on household energy use via different means such as websites, mobile phones, and home displays (Sintov & Schultz, under review). Smart meters, however, typically give feedback on overall energy use, which might still tell little to people about how they can reduce energy use. In this respect, feedback on a more detailed level, for example, on an appliance level, may be more effective (Fischer, 2008). When consumers lack the motivation or resources to consciously process information or feedback on their energy behaviours, ambient persuasive technologies can be offered that promote behaviour change without the need for user’s conscious attention and hence with little cognitive effort (Midden & Ham, 2012). For example processing interactive lighting feedback, such as a light turns green when you conserve energy, is less cognitively demanding than processing factual feedback, such as statistics on your energy use, and may facilitate and motivate people to engage in sustainable energy behaviour even in cognitively demanding situations.

Various social influence strategies can be employed to encourage sustainable energy behaviours (see Abrahamse & Steg, 2013, for a review). Social influence approaches that make use of face-to-face interaction seem most effective in this respect, such as block leader approaches, and behaviour modelling. In fact, block leader approaches, in which case local volunteers help inform other people in their neighbourhood about a certain issue, seem to be one of the most effective social influence strategies. Block leader approaches are particularly effective when the relevant social network has more ties (Weenig & Midden, 1991). Behaviour modelling entails the use of confederates or ‘‘models’’ who demonstrate a recommended behaviour, and appears to be an effective strategy to encourage sustainable behaviour too (Winett, Leckliter, Chinn, Stahl, & Love, 1985; Sussman & Gifford, 2013).

Other effective social influence strategies are commitments, in which case people make a promise to engage in sustainable energy use, and implementation intentions, in which case people not only promise to engage in sustainable energy use, but also indicate how and when they will do so. Importantly, both strategies appear to have long-term effects on sustainable behaviour (see Abrahamse et al., 2005; Abrahamse & Steg, 2013; Lokhorst, Werner, Staats, Van Dijk, & Gale, 2013, for reviews). Although little is known about the processes through which both strategies promote behaviour changes, one plausible explanation is that they strengthen personal norms. More specifically, once people committed themselves to engage in sustainable energy behaviour, they are motivated to act in line with their promise, as they want to (appear to) be consistent (Abrahamse & Steg, 2013). Another strategy that makes use of individuals’ desire to be consistent is evoking cognitive dissonance between people’s reported attitudes and behaviour. Such a hypocrisy strategy appears to be effective. For example, people who first reported a favourable attitude towards energy conservation, and later were made aware of their relatively high energy usage, significantly reduced their energy use (Kantola, Syme, & Campbell, 1984; see also Focella, & Stone, 2013).

Social influence strategies that generally happen in a fairly anonymous way, such as descriptive norm information, social comparison feedback, and group feedback, can also encourage sustainable behaviour, but seem to be less powerful than strategies that rely on face-to-face interactions (Abrahamse & Steg, 2013). The provision of descriptive norm information, that is, providing information on the behaviour of others, and social comparison feedback in which case people receive feedback about one’s own performance compared with the performance of others, and providing feedback on the performance of a group can be effective in promoting sustainable energy use, although the effect size is not very strong (see Abrahamse & Steg, 2013, for a meta-analysis). Social norm information and social comparison feedback is not very effective when most (significant) others do not act sustainably. In fact, if individuals learn that most others do not engage in sustainable energy behaviours, providing feedback on the behaviour of others may even be counter effective, as people are likely to follow this norm (Brandon & Lewis, 1999; Schultz, Nolan, Cialdini, Goldstein, & Griskevicius, 2007). Another important issue to consider is that information on the behaviour of others should be credible. For example, it would be unwise to communicate that most others engage in sustainable consumption while it is obvious that this is not actually the case (cf. Terwel, Harinck, Ellemers, & Daamen, 2009).

Besides informing people about the sustainable energy behaviour of others, they can also be reminded of sustainable energy behaviours they themselves already engaged in. As explained earlier, such strategies are likely to strengthen one’s environmental self-identity, particularly when one’s previous behaviours clearly signal that one acted pro- environmentally, thereby promoting subsequent sustainable energy behaviours (Van der Werff et al., 2014a). As discussed above, the latter is more likely to be the case when people are reminded of a range of sustainable energy actions they engaged in, or when they are reminded of behaviours that were somewhat costly or uncommon. This implies an interesting paradox. On the one hand, it may be beneficial to stress that many others act sustainably, as people are likely to act in line with such descriptive norms. Yet, on the other hand, it seems that stressing that only few people acted sustainably can also encourage sustainable energy choices, via a different process, as engaging in such behaviour can strengthen one’s environmental identity. An important question for future research is to understand the conditions under which each of these strategies would be most effective.

Share this article:

This article is from the free online course:

Solving the Energy Puzzle: A Multidisciplinary Approach to Energy Transition

University of Groningen