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Factors underlying energy behaviour

In this article, you will read about the factors and processes underlying sustainable energy behaviour.
© University of Groningen

Factors underlying energy behaviour

In this article, three factors underlying energy behaviour will be discussed. These include: knowledge, motivation and contextual factors.
Note: 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.
Behavioural interventions aimed to encourage sustainable energy use will be more successful if they target important antecedents of behaviour, and remove significant barriers to change. Hence, it is important to examine which factors affect the likelihood that people engage in behaviours that promote a sustainable energy transition. In this section, we discuss three key factors that underlie sustainable energy behaviour: people need to be aware of the need for and possible ways to contribute to a sustainable energy transition, they should be motivated to engage in the relevant behaviours, and they need to be able to do so.
In general, people are well aware of the problems related to household energy use, and are concerned about these problems (Abrahamse, 2007). Yet, there is still confusion about the processes that cause global warming (e.g., Bord, O’Connor, & Fischer, 2000). For example, many people think global warming is caused by the depletion of ozone in the upper atmosphere (which is not correct), while only a limited number of people think that heating and cooling homes contribute to global warming, which is however correct (Bord et al., 2000). Also, only about half of the people think that if today’s greenhouse content in the atmosphere would be stabilised, the climate would still warm for at least another 100 years (which is correct; Tobler, Visschers, & Siegrist, 2012). Climate change knowledge is higher among those with a higher level of education, although correlations were not strong (Tobler et al., 2012).
In addition, people’s perceptions of the energy use through their own behaviours is not always accurate. This implies that they may not accurately judge which behaviour changes are effective to reduce energy consumption. People tend to rely on a simple heuristic when assessing the energy use of household appliances, notably the size of appliances. The larger the appliance, the more energy it is believed to use (Baird & Brier, 1981; Schuitema & Steg, 2005), which is not always true. In addition, people tend to underestimate the energy needed to heat water, which suggests that people are not well aware of the fact that they can save energy by showering or bathing less (Schuitema & Steg, 2005). Also, people think that higher energy savings can be realised via curtailment behaviours, such as turning off lights, than efficiency improvements, such as installing more efficient light bulbs and appliances (Attari, DeKay, Davidson, & Bruine de Bruin, 2010), while the opposite is true according to experts. Assessing indirect energy use is even more complicated, as, typically, no information of the ‘embedded’ energy use of products and services is provided. Indeed, people know relatively little about the energy use associated with the production, transportation, and disposal of products (Tobler, Visschers, & Siegrist, 2011). For example, they overestimate the environmental benefits of organic production, as well as the environmental harm of packaging and conservation of vegetables. Moreover, when assessing the environmental impact of vegetables, people mainly consider the transportation distance rather than transportation mode (Tobler et al., 2011).
People may also hold misperceptions about characteristics of different types of energy sources and their effects on the environment. For example, some individuals categorised natural gas as a renewable energy source, most likely due to the connotation of the English word ‘natural’, while only about 55% recognised that biomass is a renewable energy source (Devine-Wright, 2003). Also, people associated bioenergy with fossil fuels due to the involved process of burning materials (Butler, Parkhill, & Pidgeon, 2013). People hold some misperceptions about carbon capture and storage technology as well. For example, they associate storing CO2 with blowing a balloon and hence mistakenly picture CO2 reservoirs as big underground caverns filled with pure CO2 (Wallquist, Visschers, & Siegrist, 2010).
Knowledge about environmental and climate change problems is related to more concern about these problems, and more positive attitudes towards environmental protections (O’Conner, Bord, & Fischer, 1999). For example, people who are more knowledgeable on climate change and the causes of climate change are generally more concerned about climate change (Guy, Kashima, Walker, & O’Neill, 2014; Sunblad, Biel, & Gärling, 2009; Tobler et al., 2012). People with direct experiences of consequences related to climate change are more concerned about problems related to climate change, and more willing to reduce their energy use (Rudman, McLean, & Bunzl, 2013; Spence, Poortinga, Butler, & Pidgeon, 2011). Right-of-centre politics and those who emphasise individual autonomy rather than collective ties are more likely to reject mainstream climate science knowledge (Costa & Kahn, 2013; Kahan, Jenkins-Smith, & Braham, 2010). This is particularly likely when solutions to climate change conflict with one’s political ideology, suggesting that rejecting climate change knowledge could be a motivational phenomenon (Campbell & Kay, 2014). A correlational study in the US revealed that higher levels of science literacy and technical reasoning capacity were not related to increased concern with climate change, suggesting that lack of understanding of the science behind climate change is not the main reason for people to not take climate change seriously (Kahan et al., 2012). If anything, science literacy and numeracy led to more polarised attitudes towards climate change that align with people’s worldviews, notably hierarchical, individualistic versus egalitarian, communitarian worldviews that are associated with, respectively, relatively low versus high concern with climate change (Kahan et al., 2012). At the same time, it was found that specific climate change knowledge attenuates the negative relationship between individualistic ideologies and beliefs about the existence of climate change (Guy et al., 2014).
Knowledge can affect the evaluation of pros and cons of energy alternatives. For example, the more factual knowledge respondents had about hydrogen, the more they perceived it as environmentally-friendly, but also, although to a lesser extent, as unsafe (Molin, 2005). Knowledge is not strongly related to environmental behaviour, including energy behaviour. Although some studies showed that more environmental knowledge increases the likelihood of pro-environmental and sustainable energy behaviour somewhat (Frick, Kaiser, & Wilson, 2004; Hines, Hungerfort, & Tomera, 1986/87), other studies showed that more knowledge does not encourage pro-environmental and sustainable energy behaviour (Kollmuss & Agyeman, 2002; Meinhold & Malkus, 2005; Schahn & Holzer, 1990; Vicente-Molina, Fernández-Sáinz, & Izagirre-Olaizola, 2013). Research suggests that different types of knowledge can predict environmental behaviour differently. More specifically, only action-related knowledge (i.e., knowing what can be done about environmental problems) and effectiveness knowledge (i.e., knowing about the benefits or effectiveness of pro-environmental actions) predicted environmental behaviour, although this was the case in just two out of five sub-samples included in this study (Frick et al, 2004). System knowledge (i.e., understanding the natural states of ecosystems and the processes within them) only affected environmental behaviour indirectly, via the other two types of knowledge. These findings suggest that although knowledge may be a precondition for pro- environmental and sustainable energy behaviour, it is not sufficient to promote such behaviour. Notably, knowledge will have limited effects when people are not motivated to engage in sustainable energy behaviour, or when they do not feel able to engage in such behaviours. We elaborate on these two factors below.
Whether or not people engage in sustainable energy behaviour will depend on their motivation to do so. People will be more motivated to engage in sustainable energy behaviours when they evaluate the consequences of such behaviours more favourably, that is, when the behaviour has relatively more benefits and less costs. Individuals can base their decisions on the evaluation of individual as well collective consequences of behaviour, as we illustrate below. Next, we discuss general motivational factors, notably values, which affect how people evaluate various costs and benefits of specific sustainable energy behaviours.
People are more likely to engage in sustainable energy behaviour when they believe such behaviour has relative low individual costs and high individual benefits, resulting in overall positive evaluations of the relevant actions. This was found for both direct and indirect energy use. For example, people were more likely to travel by car (Bamberg & Schmidt, 2003), to purchase energy-saving light bulbs, and to consume meat when they evaluated these behaviours more favourably (Harland, Staats, & Wilke, 1999). Besides instrumental costs and benefits such as prices, time, and comfort, people may also consider affective and social costs and benefits. For example, people are more likely to engage in sustainable energy behaviours when they expect to derive pleasure from such behaviour (Carrus, Passafora, & Bonnes, 2008; Gatersleben & Steg, 2012; Pelletier, Tuson, Green-Demers, Noels, & Beaton, 1998; Smith, Haugtvedt, & Petty, 1994; Steg, 2005), and when they expect that others would approve of it (Allcot, 2009; Harland et al., 1999; Nolan, Schultz, Cialdini, Goldstein, & Griskevicius, 2008). They may also engage in sustainable energy behaviour because they expect that the particular behaviour enhances their status, particularly when the behaviour is somewhat costly, as in this case the behaviour signals to others that they have sufficient resources to make altruistic sacrifices (Griskevicius, Tyber, & Van den Bergh, 2010). Similarly, the likelihood of adoption of sustainable innovations such as an electric car and renewable energy systems appeared to be higher when consumers evaluated their symbolic aspects, that is, the extent to which these innovations signal something positive about the owner or user to others and themselves, more favourably (Noppers et al., 2014). Positive symbolic outcomes may thus encourage people to adopt sustainable innovations, even though they still have some instrumental drawbacks, which is often the case in the early introduction phases. In fact, it appears that evaluations of the symbolic aspects of sustainable energy innovations more strongly predict interest in such innovations when people think the innovations have some instrumental drawbacks, probably because these drawbacks increase the signalling function on the relevant behaviour (Noppers et al., 2014). Behaviour is more diagnostic when it is somewhat costly. For example, when sustainable energy behaviour is very easy, convenient or profitable, it is hard to claim that you engaged in the behaviour because you care for others and the environment. Engaging in sustainable energy behaviour that is somewhat costly or effortful is more likely to signal that you care about others and the environment (cf. Gneezy, Imas, Brown, Nelson, & Norton, 2012).
Some sustainable energy behaviours have clear individual benefits. For example, some people may enjoy cycling more than driving a car, saving energy at home will save money, and driving an electric vehicle may enhance people’s status, as described above. However, sustainable energy behaviours oftentimes are somewhat costly, effortful, and not pleasurable. For example, insulating your home or installing solar panels on your roof is a hassle and costs time and effort, investing in energy efficient technology can be costly, switching off appliances may be a more effortful than leaving them on standby, and using particular appliances only when sufficient renewable energy sources are available limits freedom of choice. Yet, many people do engage in such behaviours, even though they are somewhat costly or effortful. What motivates people to engage in costly or effortful sustainable energy behaviour?
People not only consider individual consequences of behaviour, but also collective consequences. Sustainable energy behaviours benefit the environment as they result in a reduction of CO2 emissions (Steg, Bolderdijk, Keizer, & Perlaviciute, 2014). People are motivated to see themselves as morally right, which may encourage sustainable energy behaviours, as this indicates that one is doing the right thing (Bolderdijk, Steg, Geller, Lehman, & Postmes, 2013b). This implies that sustainable energy behaviour not only results from individual considerations, but also from moral considerations. Indeed, several studies revealed that moral considerations affect sustainable energy behaviour, such as the purchase of energy-saving light bulbs and meat consumption (Harland, Staats, & Wilke, 2007), electricity saving at work (Zhang, Wang, & Zhou, 2013), energy saving behaviours at home (Van der Werff & Steg, 2015), and the acceptability of energy policies (Steg & De Groot, 2010; Steg, Dreijerink, & Abrahamse, 2005). Interestingly, engaging in sustainable energy behaviour may make people feel good because they derive pleasure and satisfaction from doing the right thing (Bolderdijk et al., 2013b; Taufik, Bolderdijk, & Steg, 2014; Venhoeven, Bolderdijk, & Steg, 2013). Interestingly, people may even physically feel warmer by engaging in sustainable energy behaviour; this phenomenon is known as a warm-glow effect (Taufik et al., 2014).
Engaging in sustainable energy behaviour is likely to strengthen the environmental self-identity, that is, the extent to which a person sees himself or herself as a pro- environmental person (Cornelissen, Pandelaere, Warlop, & Dewitte, 2008; Van der Werff et al. 2013, 2014a). Interestingly, the environmental self-identity is particularly strengthened when people engaged in pro-environmental behaviours that are somewhat costly or uncommon, probably because such behaviours are more likely to signal how pro- environmental a person is (Van der Werff et al., 2014a). As indicated above, a strong environmental self-identity is likely to encourage positive spillover effects. This implies that people may engage in a wide range of sustainable energy behaviour when they realise they engaged in sustainable energy behaviours that are somewhat (but not too) costly or effortful (Van der Werff et al., 2014a).
The role of values in motivation
An important question is to what extent people consider and weigh individual and collective considerations of sustainable energy behaviour, and which factors enhance the likelihood that they will consider individual and collective consequences in the choices they make. Values appear to be an important factor in this respect. Values reflect life goals or ideals that define what is important to people and what consequences they strive for in their lives in general (Rokeach, 1973; Schwartz, 1992). Values are general motivational factors that can affect a wide range of evaluations, beliefs, and actions (Steg et al., 2014). Four types of values have been found to be relevant for people’s evaluations and behaviour related to sustainable energy use: hedonic values that make people focus on pleasure and comfort, egoistic values that make people focus on safeguarding and promoting one’s personal resources (i.e., money, status), altruistic values that make people focus on the well- being of other people and society, and biospheric values that make people focus on consequences for nature and the environment (De Groot & Steg, 2008; Steg & De Groot, 2012; Steg, Perlaviciute, Van der Werff, & Lurvink, 2014b).
Values affect how important people find different consequences of sustainable energy behaviours, and how they evaluate these consequences. More specially, people focus particularly on the characteristics of sustainable energy behaviours that have implications (i.e., costs or benefits) for their important values (Steg et al., 2014b). In addition, people are more aware of environmental problems caused by their behaviour when they more strongly endorse bioshperic values, or less strongly endorse egoistic values (Nordlund & Garvill, 2002; Schultz et al., 2005; Steg et al., 2005; Stern, Dietz, Kalof, & Guagnano, 1995). This in turn influences their motivations and choices. As explained before, many sustainable energy behaviours have positive collective consequences, and negative individual consequences. In line with this, research revealed that in general, people have more favourable evaluations of and are more likely to engage in sustainable energy behaviours if they have strong biospheric and, to a lesser extent, altruistic values, while they are less likely do so if they have strong egoistic and/or hedonic values (see Steg & De Groot, 2012 for a review). Yet, in some cases strong altruistic values can inhibit sustainable energy behaviour, for example, when such behaviour is believed to have negative consequences for the wellbeing of others (De Groot & Steg, 2008). Strong biospheric values also affect sustainable energy behaviour via one’s environmental self-identity (Van der Werff et al., 2013, 2014b; Whitmarsh & O’Neill, 2010; Gatersleben, Murtagh, & Abrahamse, 2012), in turn increasing the likelihood of positive spillover effects, as explained earlier.
Contextual factors
In general, people care about the environment, and endorse biospheric values. Yet, many people do not consistently engage in sustainable energy behaviour. How can we explain this value-behaviour gap? Besides a lack of knowledge on the environmental implications of one’s behaviour (see above), and lack of motivation to do so, sustainable energy behaviour can be inhibited by various contextual factors. These contextual factors define the costs and benefits of different energy behaviours thereby influencing individual motivations (Lindenberg & Steg, 2007; Ölander & Thøgersen, 1995; Steg & Vlek, 2009; Stern, 1999; Thøgersen, 2005). For example, cycling rather than driving will be more effortful when people have to travel long distances, while subsidy schemes can make investments in solar panels or investments in energy efficient technology more affordable, which may result in more favourable evaluations of these systems. Hence, in some cases, contextual factors facilitate sustainable energy behaviour, and support individuals’ biospheric values and moral considerations. For example, the provision of recycling schemes and recycling facilities promote recycling (Guagano, Stern, & Dietz, 1995). Interestingly, this study also showed that moral considerations were less predictive of behaviour when contextual factors strongly supported the behaviour (i.e., when recycling bins were provided), suggesting that when behavioural costs are very low, everyone engages in the behaviour, irrespective of the strength of their biospheric values and moral considerations. In other cases, contextual factors can inhibit people to act upon their biospheric values and moral considerations (Abrahamse & Steg, 2009, 2011; Diekmann & Preisendörfer, 2003; Harland et al., 1999; Steg, De Groot, Dreijerink, Abrahamse, & Siero, 2011). Contextual factors even may make some behaviours simply impossible (e.g., Corraliza & Berenguer, 2000; Guagnano et al., 1995).
Besides defining the costs and benefits of sustainable energy behaviours, contextual factors can serve as cues that activate specific values in a particular situation, making it more likely that these values steer decision making in that situation (Steg, 2015; Steg et al., 2014a). For example, bikini models or chocolate can activate hedonic values; status symbols or signs of money can activate egoistic values; while Bibles, churches, statues of Justitia and environmental symbols can activate altruistic and biospheric values (Lindenberg, 2012; Lindenberg & Steg, 2007; Perlaviciute, 2014; Verplanken & Holland, 2002). Also, high behavioural costs are likely to activate values related to these costs, notably hedonic and egoistic values, which makes it less likely that people act upon their biospheric values (Steg, 2015; Steg et al., 2014a). Furthermore, signs of immoral or norm violating behaviour by others can activate hedonic and egoistic values, making altruistic and biospheric values less influential in the particular choice situation. The opposite is true for cues that clearly signal that others respect norms and acted morally right (Steg, 2015; Steg et al., 2014a).
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Solving the Energy Puzzle: A Multidisciplinary Approach to Energy Transition

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