The Psychology Behind Going Green

July 9, 2012

by Robin Tricoles 

When it comes to deciding on whether to use energy-efficient technology, we often don’t bother—despite an array of options that are environmentally and economically advantageous.

But why is this? Perhaps because as humans, we have habits, fears, and biases that get in the way of making all sorts of sound decisions, such as whether to buy a bigger house, a hybrid car, or a particular kind of light bulb.

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In fact, many of our energy choices are not deliberative, says psychologist Elke Weber. We make our choices out of habit, says Weber. We don’t even think about it.

So if you’ve been using incandescent light bulbs since what seems like the dark ages, it’s tough to change your ways. When people do something automatically, it’s very hard to gain an entry point where external information changes their behavior, says Weber.

Include people’s fear of new technology, and change becomes even tougher. There’s an emotional component to decision-making not just a processing component, says Weber, an expert in the behavior of judgment and decision-making.

We have a strong status quo bias, she says. People tend to believe that what’s been going on for a while can’t be all that bad. What’s more, people’s automatic reaction to change is fear, fear of what the future might bring, explains Weber.

Add to that their fear of the immediate economic cost of that change. Almost all green technologies have certain upfront costs. “They loom large,” says Weber. And the savings come in only “small dribbles,” she adds. But the upfront costs have much more of an impact on decision making than they should, based on actual consequences, she says.

So can these psychological and economic obstacles to the use of green energy be overcome? Yes, says Weber, they can. Several approaches are possible.

One thing that helps encourage people to use energy efficient technology is to give green options attractive labels. “Labels matter, and they should be positive labels,” says Weber. “I think it’s much better to deal with positive action than to scare people into action, because fear is something aversive that people want to remove themselves from,” she says. For example, calling a carbon-emission fee a tax makes a “huge difference” as to whether people will pay for their consumption of carbon as they fly across the country, explains Weber.

Another way to encourage people to go green is to make energy efficient options the default choice “In other words, the energy-efficient option will apply if you don’t make a decision otherwise,” says Weber. For example, people are more likely to use energy-efficient compact fluorescent light bulbs if a home is already equipped with outlets that accommodate them.

“It doesn’t take any of the choices off the table,” says Weber. “But it helps consumers who don’t want to engage actively to end up with the outcomes that are best for them and society.”

Weber says it’s also important to help people focus on their goals. We all have multiple and conflicting goals, says Weber. That is, we want our energy to be sustainable yet affordable. “No one wants to destroy planet earth but we want to turn on our air conditioning so we can be comfortable. But different goals will dictate different actions when it comes to energy. It’s only the goal that’s active at any given time that determines your choices,” explains Weber.

“It turns out that chronically it’s our short-term goals that are activated,” she says. “Probably for evolutionary reasons, we have to survive until tomorrow to worry about the future. So, it’s the longer-term goals that have to do with future generations and long-term amortization of technology that need to be activated.

So, really the million-dollar question, says Weber: can you activate the relevant goals that will lead to choices that are in people’s long-term economic and environmental interests?

As it turns out the answer is yes, she says. And the way to do that is called goal priming. “We can activate on a temporary basis any existing set of goals by showing people symbols consistent with those goals,” she says. Clouds imbedded into the wallpaper of an online sofa shopping site will prime comfort, and dollar signs will prime affordability.

Finally, as social animals we’re influenced by those around us. And when we’re trying to make decisions, our level of human interaction deeply affects our choices, even when it comes to technology.

If you’re trying to decide if you want to switch from a brown energy provider to a green energy provider at additional costs, it turns out people make different decisions based on whether they’re alone at the kitchen table or out and about, says Weber.  If you’re alone, choosing the green provider is less likely. But if you’re making that decision in context of a meeting or forum, you’re more likely to go green.

“The social context activates the goal,” says Weber. ”You know you’re not alone in the world, and your decision impacts others.”


Elke Weber, PhD, is a professor of psychology and the Jerome A. Chazen Professor of International Business at Columbia University. Weber explores why and how people make the decisions they make. Working at the intersection of psychology and economics, Weber is an expert on behavioral models of judgment and decision-making under risk and uncertainty. For more information about Weber’s research, please visit Dr. Weber's profile

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