Is messaging about consumers’ home-energy habits important in climate change mitigation? Many organizations say yes, and are conducting outreach to raise awareness and persuade individuals to improve their energy use.
But are the messages being used in that outreach actually working? Our research, recently published in the journal Energy Policy, suggests the types of messages that are typically used don’t always have the desired effect. This research also suggests ways to improve energy-conservation messaging.
Often energy-related messages are crafted under the assumption that the information they contain will be received, processed and acted upon in a rational way. What does this mean? As traditionally conceived, rationality implies that people maximize their utility (more commonly referred to as their happiness) subject to their material constraints (i.e. the money they have) and their beliefs about the world (i.e. the information they have).
The richness of human behavior, however, means that people don’t always act in ways that can be explained by this model. People may, for example, care about the utility of others — in other words, they may care about others’ happiness in addition to their own. Constraints may take the form of time or willpower, rather than money. People’s beliefs may be shaped not only by the objective information they have, but also by their perceptions of what other people believe. Moreover, people don’t always act according to the beliefs they hold.
The behavioral sciences have played an important role in revealing these and other nuances in the decision-making process. As a result they have led to more sophisticated decision-making theories, and consequently, to more sophisticated policy interventions based on these theories. Our paper calls attention to a constellation of recent findings that cast doubt on the effectiveness of what has so far been a rather uncontroversial persuasive strategy: that “more is better.” In this case, this strategy implies that by making energy use out to be a more severe issue and providing more arguments in favor of energy conservation, better results will occur.
While this may seem like a sound messaging technique, our review of behavioral science research suggests that “more is better” messages have the potential to backfire, undermining the very objective — greater energy conservation — that they seek to accomplish.
There are three ways this strategy can go awry. First, for many message-senders, it may seem logical to convey the severity of the issue by emphasizing the pervasiveness of energy-intensive behavior. Recent studies, however, demonstrate that this strategy may in fact lead to more energy consumption, not less, because it can give the impression that energy-intensive behavior is a norm. This, in turn, can make consumptive habits seem less unacceptable. Large-scale studies of energy use, for example, have found that when people learn that they use less energy than most, they tend to increase the amount of energy they consume.
Another common messaging strategy draws attention to the scale of a problem by emphasizing the great number of potential victims, with the expectation that this will make people more likely to take action to address it. However, several studies have shown that people are actually more willing to help a single person than a group of many people; similarly, crimes involving a greater number of victims tend to be perceived as less severe than crimes involving fewer victims. These findings suggest that a single, identifiable victim elicits stronger sympathetic reactions than many indistinguishable victims.
Finally, while it is rather reasonable to expect that “more is better” with respect to the number of arguments provided in a persuasive message, there are indications that here, too, this logic may be ineffective and even counterproductive. Recent studies have found that people are in fact less likely to feel persuaded by a message that contains both weak and strong arguments compared to a message that contains only strong arguments. In three experiments, for example, people read public service announcements that contained either two or ten reasons to quit smoking, vote or exercise. In each of these experiments, people who saw the message containing ten reasons rated themselves as less likely to do these things than people who saw only two reasons. This evidence suggests that, quite counterintuitively, adding more arguments to a message can in fact reduce its overall persuasiveness.
So what does work? Taken together, the findings we raise here suggest that the detrimental effects of the “more is better” logic can be avoided by:
- Not drawing attention to the prevalence of energy-intensive habits;
- Identifying individuals who are harmed by high levels of energy consumption; and
- Prioritizing only the strongest two or three arguments in persuasive messages regarding energy conservation.
So while the logic that “more is better” may serve well in some situations, it clearly doesn’t always benefit strategies of persuasion. Recent and emerging work in the behavioral sciences shows the devil is, in fact, in the details with respect to the design of persuasive messages. If widely adopted the insights we’ve gathered could improve the effectiveness of energy conservation efforts and could even contribute to shifting the habits and norms surrounding energy use, which is a key element of overall climate mitigation efforts.
The opinions expressed above are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official views of the ITF/OECD or of the governments of its member countries, nor those of The Revelator, the Center for Biological Diversity or their employees.