Having access to an abundance of data, as we do in this digital era, we should be able to use it to dramatically improve our lives. However, this is not easily done. Too many important messages, it seems, get lost within the general noise. A new study from UCLA investigated what might motivate people to decrease their use of electricity. Unexpectedly, the researchers discovered messages about environmental and personal health impact such as how the production of electricity harms the environment and increases risks of childhood asthma and cancer — changed residential users’ behavior more than messages about saving money.

“When we look at our computer or our fridge, we don’t see a smokestack,” Dr. Magali Delmas, professor of management, UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, told Medical Daily. “The environmental impact, the health impact is invisible to most of us.”

Describing her study, Delmas explained how all the participants resided in an apartment complex of same-sized flats containing the exact same appliances. “We first surveyed people and asked them what would be the most important reason for them to save energy,” she told Medical Daily. “We had a long list of possibilities.” The survey showed the participants’ top priority was saving money, with health being the second highest concern.

Next, the researchers measured for a six-month trial period during 2012 the energy use of each apartment. Then, the researchers divided the participants into two groups and sent them weekly emails for four months. All the emails told how much more energy they used than their most efficient neighbor, yet one group also learned how much more they paid for energy than that neighbor. Meanwhile, the second group discovered how many more pounds of air pollution they were creating than their efficient neighbor, while also being reminded that air pollution is linked to diseases like childhood asthma and cancer.

The researchers also created a website that allowed the residents to track their current electricity use in real-time and compare it to the trial period. Residents could also see the energy-use data for individual appliances, such as the food processor or the air conditioner. In this way, residents could visualize the steady plateaus when they stayed up late working on their computers and the power dips when they were out for the day. Quickly, they learned which of their behaviors wasted or conserved energy and how they might change.

Parents Conserved Most

When the study ended, Delmas and her colleague, Omar I. Asensio, a UCLA doctoral candidate, were surprised to discover the results. People who regularly heard how much money they could save made virtually no change, while those who heard repeated messages about environmental and health-based benefits cut their energy use by an average of eight percent.

“There was a disconnect between what they said and what they did,” she told Medical Daily, referring of course to the survey suggesting people were motivated by money more so than environmental benefits. “It’s not completely surprising, because electricity is relatively inexpensive, so people would save, at most, $5 to $6 per month.”

Such small savings did not inspire a change in behavior, while environmental and health benefits did. Perhaps expectedly, parents led the energy conservation charge, decreasing their electric consumption by 19 percent. "I relate to that in my own life," Delmas laughed. "Since I’ve had children, I pay more attention."

Looking ahead, Delmas believes in a couple of years, many if not all appliances will be wifi enabled and so able to send us information about how much we use them and how much energy they consume. “But what will we do with this information? You can have the tech and it can look cool and fun but if it doesn’t inspire people to change their behavior, well…” Delmas’ voice drifts away on the phone, a long-distance call requiring how many kilowatts? “We need to find a way to engage people and stay engaged.” For more information, see the YouTube video below.

Source: Asensio OI, Delmas MA. Nonprice incentives and energy conservation. PNAS. 2015