October 30, 2018

Is 2018 the year of behaving well?

The Behavior Energy and Climate Change (BECC) 2018 conference opened its doors to social scientists, policymakers and the energy industry, hot on the heels of the IPCC releasing its latest report. Against a bleak backdrop, did the preeminent conference in this space find reason for celebration? Or is 2018 still the year of behaving badly?

Written by
Guy Champniss

Early October saw the 2018 BECC conference, this year in Washington DC. It turned out to have what you could say was excellent timing (or maybe not) — the conference coincided with the release of the IPCC’s Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5c (SR15). If ever there was a rallying call for faster and deeper behaviour change, then this was it.

Enervee was at the conference with two presentations (I presented some of our research on how consumer-held lay theories are getting in the way of more energy-smart buying behaviour, and my colleague, Anne Arquit Niederberger, presented data on how Enervee’s IDEAL Marketplace was able to move everyone towards more efficient purchases — regardless of incentives).

But rather than talking about our own work, against the backdrop of the IPCC report, here instead are our five main takeaways from BECC this year:

1. Where’s the behaviour?

The conference opened with a presentation that showed a number of local case studies (from the UK, surprisingly), which were all linked in one particular way — they all focused on trying to frame messages to appeal to attitudes. Not to take anything away from attitudinal approaches to behaviour change, but the focus on attitudes reminded us a lot of the more purist position that’s sometimes taken when it comes to pro-environmental behaviours — that unless we get people to change how they think about the problem, we won’t see people changing their behaviour towards the programme. That’s a view. But the rapid growth in the application of behavioural science shows us it’s often far more effective (faster and cheaper) to go after the behaviour change first, and then think about aligning attitudes afterwards. So to have the opening presentation seemingly retreat to a more traditionalist’s view of behaviour change felt a little like an opportunity missed.

2. We’re at war.

But maybe the shift in focus back to attitudes can be explained by the broader context of the event this year. The sense — certainly from a non-US perspective — is that we’re at war. You’re either for or against the climate message. You’re either for science, or against science. This polarised view is seen in a string of contexts now (and Cass Sunstein writes about it brilliantly here), and it may explain why a climate ideology may have crept back into the debate; that so much is now at risk, we need to address the issue at source. There was an argument that behavioural ‘tricks’ to drive behaviour change don’t do justice the core problem. Again, were this the case, then it would be dangerous. More than ever, we need to be pragmatic and creative to find solutions. Horses for courses. If reforming attitudes and appealing to intrinsic motivations to change behaviour is seen to work, then that’s great. But behavioural techniques should not be marginalised in the name of ‘doing it properly’. We need to utilise everything we have, and we know behavioural interventions are typically fast, cheap and highly effective.

3. From efficiency to engagement and satisfaction.

Enervee has been speaking to energy companies in both the US and Europe for quite a few years now, and we notice those two worlds starting to move towards each other. While there’s no energy company in Europe focused on delivering energy savings, there are plenty of US companies now turning their gaze from efficiency to engagement and satisfaction. This makes perfect sense — even in a regulated market in terms of who supplies your power, there’s an increasing need to have those same customers turn to you for additional, complementary services. Solar, storage, smart home, and EVs — these are all services for which the utility industry is well-placed to help consumers choose and adopt. But that requires building out a trusted energy advisor status amongst consumers, hence the increasing interest in engagement and satisfaction. And we shouldn’t forget, when it comes to those complementary services, the market is not regulated, and energy companies need to go toe to toe with consumer businesses that know far better how to build an engaging experience for the consumer.

4. The peak-end effect is alive and well.

The peak-end effect describes how we tend to remember experiences as a sum of two specific moments within the experience — the most intense moment, and the final moment. This effect has been used to steer the development of customer experiences from airlines to mobile phone contracts, with the important insight that we don’t have to excel at the whole experience, but just the parts that we’ll remember. BECC — as a body of psychologists — knows this effect well, and provided a compelling close to the event, bringing together some of the leading academics researching the area of behaviour change. Elke Weber (Gerhard R. Andlinger Professor in Energy and the Environment, Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs, Princeton) hit the topic head-on, recognising the shift we’d sensed over the two days. Her presentation led with quoting Abraham Lincoln: ’A house divided against itself cannot stand’, to draw stark reference to our polarised world today. Weber also drew the room’s attention to the fact three Nobel prizes for economics since 1978 have been awarded to those challenging conventional thought regarding decision making (Simon, 1978; Kahneman, 2002; and Thaler, 2017). She finished her presentation with a renewed call to ‘provide modelling alternatives to rational expectations and rational choice’. We have a long way to go, but a focus on behaviour (and maybe — but not necessarily — the attitudes that shape it) is the right road. We just need to travel down it faster.

5. Let’s think about behaviour differently.

The closing moments of the conference once again focused on delivering better research to better understand behaviour. As if to hit the point again, Paul Stern (President, Social and Environmental Research Institute, and Professor II, Norwegian University of Science and Technology) pointed out that assuming pro-environmental behaviours share common pro-environmental attitudes is a mistake. And he went further to point out that, going forward, we need to recognise that behaviours that have a positive environmental impact may not be the same thing as pro-environmental behaviours. In other words, we need to move from statistically proving effects (no matter how small), to demonstrating impact. If ever there was a cry for pragmatism, this was it.

Final slide of BECC 2018
Look at the final comments on this, the final slide of BECC 2018

But it was Paul Stern’s last sentence (and by definition, the last sentence of the whole conference) that made the whole thing so worthwhile for us. In talking about the importance of demonstrating impact, he said: ‘Effective interventions for increasing adoption of energy efficient and renewable energy equipment by households [must] follow a set of design principles that go beyond technical and economic factors, e.g., i) making high-impact choices more convenient, easy to make, and ii) making relevant information available from trusted sources near the point of decision’.

In case you don’t believe me, I’ve posted a photo.

So there we have it — Enervee’s proposition in a nutshell. BECC 2018 closed on highlighting on what Enervee’s trying to achieve — a pragmatic approach to mass-scale behaviour change, using behavioural science and data. Let’s hope this creates a positive peak-end effect for all.

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