â€¦It Helps To Understand Human Behavior
If I told you how much energy your neighbors use on average, and whether you fell above or below that average, would that induce you to save more energy? What if, depending on whether you came in above or below average, you got an emoticon on your energy bill? Say, a smiley face if you save more energy than they do, a frowny face if less.
Sounds silly, right? Weâ€™re all rational people here. We do things for considered reasons, not some cartoon face!
Except not so much. In a 2007 experiment in California, homeowners given an emoticon on their bill in addition to information about their neighborsâ€™ energy usage saved 40% more energy than those given information alone.
It turns out weâ€™re surrounded by cartoon faces, all sorts of cues and stimuli that trigger behaviors without engaging the conscious mind. Most of these automated behavioral reactions evolved over time because they helped human societies function better. But precisely because they have evolved to be automatic, they can lead us astray.
The fact that human behavior is governed in part by automated, non-rational behavioral routines is old news to any number of disciplines, from sociology and psychology to history to neurobiology. Itâ€™s also well known among corporate marketing departments. But the news has been somewhat late coming to economics, which at least in the Enlightenment west begins with the assumption that human beings are rational actors who weigh costs and benefits and maximize self-interest. The fledgling field of behavioral economics has been trying to change this, incorporating the knowledge that people are Predictably Irrational, as the recent bestseller by economist Dan Ariely puts it. (See also The Myth of the Rational Market by Justin Fox and Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein.)
Understanding human irrational (and arational) behavioral patterns can, among other things, help policymakers design more efficient and efficacious policy interventions. It can help us rectify our collective weaknesses, blind spots, and myopia.
What does this have to do with making buildings more efficient? In my last post on building efficiency, I took a look at a few market failures standing in the way of exploiting the enormous potential of building efficiency. Market failures can generally be solved by properly aligning incentives. Some of the most interesting barriers to efficiency, though, are not market failures but what mainstream economists call â€œbehavioral failuresâ€â€”failure to behave like economists say you oughtta. Failure, that is, to behave like a rational actor maximizing self-interest.
Understanding why and how such failures occur, drawing on the latest social psychological research, can help us accelerate the financial savings and greenhouse-gas-emission reductions that efficiency brings. That kind of research peaked around the energy crisis of the â€˜70s but has been anemic and underfunded since. Luckily, the stuff seems to be getting some attention in the energy world. In 2007, the House Subcommittee on Research & Science Education held a hearing on â€œThe Contribution of the Social Sciences to the Energy Challenge.â€ The same year saw the launch of the Behavior, Energy and Climate Change Conference, devoted to â€œpractical application of social and behavioral insights to address our climate challenges.â€ (ClimateWire had a nice write-up of the 2009 meeting, which wrapped up last week.) I expect this will be a fun area of research to watch over the next few years.
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