The Psychology of Saving Energy

Quick, which will save more energy, changing your washer setting to ‘medium’ from ‘high,’ or line drying your clothes? Is it better to ride your bike, or buy a hybrid car?

The answers may surprise you. But it probably won’t surprise you that there’s a good deal of confusion in the US on energy saving strategies. A recent study by researchers at Columbia University, Ohio State University, and Carnegie Mellon University concluded that people’s perceptions of the energy savings of various actions don’t reflect reality very well. Consequently, their actions, while virtuous and well-intended, aren’t as effective as they might be.

The New York Times quoted the study as saying, “Participants estimated that line-drying clothes saves more energy than changing the washer’s settings (the reverse is true) and estimated that a central air-conditioner uses only 1.3 times the energy of a room air-conditioner (in fact, it uses 3.5 times as much).”


One of the interesting things they found was that people tended to think of saving energy in the same way they thought about saving money, i.e. that they can save simply by not using as much. Turning off the lights when leaving the room, for example, was cited by almost 20% of the respondents as a fundamental energy saving strategy, more than any other action.

The reality is that more serious energy savings result from replacing things that use a lot of energy, like old appliances, with things that use less, a strategy cited by only 3% of the study participants. In general, the researchers found, people focused on “curtailment” rather than efficiency, doing without something, rather than doing something differently.

There may be several reasons for this. First, buying a new energy-efficient refrigerator requires research and, of course, out of pocket expenses. You may save more energy in the long run, but you need to pay out some money in the beginning, and this is an obstacle. (This sounds familiar to anyone in the corporate world.) Second, curtailment is easier to imagine and integrate into your routine. Who among us is unable to turn off a light when leaving the room? Or turn down the thermostat?

Psychology comes to the fore here. Recent studies indicate that humans don’t actually make rational decisions. Our minds tend to decide something in very short order based on biases and judgment, and then develop the rationale after the decision is actually made. It should be no surprise that we choose actions to save energy that require the least work, but leave us feeling virtuous.

Interestingly, of the people in the study, thirty-seven percent considered themselves environmentalists. But the study concluded that “participants who reported engaging in a greater number of pro-environmental energy-related behaviors had less accurate perceptions” about the value of these behaviors than the group as a whole did. This may be because people who are environmentally aware are more likely to see themselves as willing to do the things that others aren’t, to do without for the sake of the planet. This is a good sentiment that we should all adopt. But it also leads to misperception of how beneficial ‘curtailment’ can be.

So, what can be done? The “green Tower of Babble” is confusing to us all. The possible actions are infinite, the arguments endless, and certainty hard to find. Paralysis is understandable, but we can’t afford that. I think that today, more than ever, it’s important to each of us to have a personal narrative, a story about where we fit in our world, our community, and what our goals are. A good narrative will not always guide you toward the absolute best actions, but it will support good decision making over all, and relieve the confusion that comes with the green Tower of Babble.

But by all means we need to avoid exacerbating another problem pointed out by the study: About 2.8 percent of those responding said they could save energy by sleeping or relaxing more. That compares with only 2.1 percent who said they could do so by insulating their homes.

Paul Birkeland lives in Seattle, WA, US, and develops Strategic Energy Management Systems for government, commercial, and industrial organizations through Integrated Renewable Energy.