How to give people feedback on their eco-behaviour

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Many of us assume that if we just give people the information they need, they will act in the right way.

This assumes that households and businesses are run by micro-resource managers who make decisions about how to act after looking at the costs and benefits of all their options.

To change behaviour all we need to do then is provide things like smart meters and everything will be better, won’t it?

It turns out that isn’t the case because there are a number of problems we face.

For starters, not everyone understands the language of energy or water as shown on a display or report.

It’s hard to visualise 140 litres of water, for example.

It may be easier to grasp when it is translated into something that people can relate to – for example a one litre bottle for every child in a small primary school or the amount of water that goes into making one unit of product.

Even when people understand it, they may not feel they have any choice about using energy.

No one wants cold tea – and we would rather wear clean clothes. That means using the kettle and washing machine.

We can’t turn off energy if we have to do things – we have no control really.

A related problem is focusing on visible things and forgetting the stuff running all the time in the background.

For example, using the kettle will turn displays red with a power spike – but it only lasts a small time.

Or many organisations focus on replacing lights, because that is a very visible way of showing that they are reducing energy – but miss out on larger savings.

Then there are traffic light systems – which have been shown to improve behaviour by getting people to try and stay in the green.

At the same time, they make it ok to do things as long as the display is green – consuming more power overall over time.

A major stumbling block is simply what we want. We’d like a bigger telly, even though the old one works.

Christmas is about shopping – and we’re not going to deprive the kids of stuff even if it’s mostly plastic.

All these problems and more mean that getting people to change behaviour is a bit of a challenge.

So, how should we look at solutions? We can take some lessons from the designers of better eco-feedback solutions.

First, we need to provide better information.

For information to work, it needs to be easy to understand, attract attention, have a social component and be provided at the right time – the EAST framework.

An example is making sure there are labels that say when and who something must happen – like a sticker on light switches saying the last person out should turn off the lights.

Then there are goals.

Companies that commit to targets like Science Based Targets will give people the responsibility and permission to take action.

Government targets can ripple through economies and cause changes in behaviour in order to comply.

There is some evidence that comparisons work – people like being on top of league tables, for example.

After a certain point, however, it may not be possible to eke out further savings, and so comparisons become less important as people feel they are impossible to achieve.

Incentives and rewards, even small ones, can affect behaviour.

Simply having a star after the names of people can change how the group views and engage with the activities required – either to get their own star or keep one they already have.

For eco-feedback to work, it needs to follow the Goldilocks principle.

Not too much, not too little, but just right.

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