Individuals can make a difference in energy consumption

Thomas Dietz, professor of sociology and environmental science and policy (ESPP) and  assistant vice president for environmental research at Michigan State University

Jan. 7, 2013

Individuals and households have the potential to change U.S. energy consumption, but to tap this potential, energy policies need to integrate behavioral and social science research about what drives human behavior, according to a CSIS researcher.

CSIS member Thomas Dietz, professor of environmental science and policy, sociology, and animal studies at Michigan State University, is the co-author of the essay "Reducing Carbon-based Energy Consumption through Changes in Household Behavior," in the winter 2013 issue of Daedalus, the journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Dietz and his colleagues Paul Stern, of the National Academies, and Elke Weber, of Columbia University, argue that many energy policies and programs are based on outmoded assumptions about what drives human behavior; instead insights from the behavioral and social sciences need to be integrated into engineering and economic research to achieve successful energy programs.

The most successful programs integrate five design principles:

  • financial incentives
  • smart communication
  • information must come from credible sources
  • the process must be simple
  • quality assurance

"Although the potential for reducing fossil energy consumption through household decisions is immense, it can be realized only through effective programs," the authors write. "Such programs need to build on understanding of household choice processes, and this understanding must be rooted in behavioral and social science that goes far beyond current assumptions about rational and deliberative information use. Much of this understanding exists. Our current challenge is to put existing theory and methods to use for more effective design and implementation of policies targeting fossil energy use."