Climate change, which has been increasingly identified in recent decades, confronts us with one of the greatest challenges of our time. International agreements such as the Paris Climate Conference in 2015 have already taken the first decisive steps towards a more sustainable energy policy. Switzerland has also recognized the need to change its energy policy and has initiated the transition of the energy system with its “Energy Strategy 2050”. However, the success of this energy system transformation depends not only on the development and expansion of new infrastructures and technologies but also on fundamental changes in consumer behavior and decision-making patterns. The potential for such changes is huge: the Swiss Academies of Arts and Sciences estimate that energy consumption could be reduced by up to 30 percent by 2050 compared with 2010. Behavioral sciences, and psychology, in particular, have the potential to make a major contribution to energy system transformation by providing information on the mechanisms underlying consumer behavior and the factors that favor the behavioral changes needed to reduce energy consumption (Brosch & Mertens, 2017).
Previous approaches to promote more sustainable energy consumption have focused on providing information and financial incentives. For example, the Swiss Federal Office of Energy provides brochures on the subject of energy saving. Additionally, some Swiss cantons support the purchase of energy-efficient vehicles with tax benefits. However, research in behavioral economics and psychology has repeatedly shown that consumers only behave rationally to a limited extent, especially when it comes to complex issues such as climate protection. Therefore, these measures only partially achieve the desired behavioral changes among consumers. In recent years, the effectiveness of so-called “nudging” has therefore been increasingly investigated. These are interventions that, through small changes in the decision-making environment, can lead to more energy-efficient decisions and behaviors without creating financial incentives or restricting consumer choice through prohibitions (Brosch & Mertens, 2017).
An example of such a nudge is the so-called “default effect” (= the tendency to keep the default settings). In one study, two economists show that the careful selection of defaults in the energy sector can also be an extremely effective way of persuading consumers to make more sustainable decisions. As part of the study, around 42,000 households were able to choose between different tariffs of an energy supplier. Each of these tariffs offered the option of purchasing electricity from renewable energy sources for a small additional charge. Consumers who already were pre-selected with this “green” add-on option were ten times more likely to use renewable electricity than consumers who first had to actively choose this option (Brosch & Mertens, 2017).
How can this effect be explained? One explanation is that consumers see the pre-selection of certain options as a standard or recommendation. The two economists offer a further explanation: The conscious decision against a green electricity tariff, which should be preferred from a moral point of view, could be much more difficult for consumers than not to choose this tariff if there are no defaults (Brosch & Mertens, 2017).
In this example, a study of environmental psychological interventions by economists was briefly described. However, economists are not the only ones who deal with environmental psychological interventions. Other professional groups are also involved in such interventions, such as environmental psychologists.
Environmental psychologists deal both with the influences of the environment on humans and with the influences of humans on the environment. In the psychological sense, the environment is regarded as the outer physical-material and sociocultural habitat of humans. Accordingly, this does not only mean the “natural” environment but also, for example, the urban areas (Netzwerk Psychologie und Umwelt, 2019).
Environmental psychological research relates to topics such as the perception, assessment, and design of environments. Thus, environmental psychology provides a crucial contribution to explaining, understanding and predicting environmental human behavior and experience. Environmental psychology is very interdisciplinary, application-oriented and has high relevance for society as a whole due to its broad range of topics (Netzwerk Psychologie und Umwelt, 2019).
Topics for environmental-psychological questions are for example:
- Environmental perception and assessment
- Environmental planning, environmental design, participation processes
- Spatial behavior and mobility
- Environmental awareness and environmental protection behavior
- Environmental education and influencing environmentally relevant behavior
- Mediation in environmental conflicts
- Evaluation of environmental actions
(Netzwerk Psychologie und Umwelt, 2019).
- Brosch, T., & Mertens, S. (2017). Kleine Intervention mit grosser Wirkung – Green Nudges als Feinjustierungen am Anpassungsmechanismus an sozialen Normen. Psychoscope, (3), 10 – 13.
- Netzwerk Psychologie und Umwelt (2019). Was ist Umweltpsychologie?. Retrieved December 14, 2019, from http://www.umweltpsychologie.at/?page_id=889
- Deutsche Gesellschaft für Psychologie (n.d). Umweltpsychologie. Retrieved April 02, 2020 from https://studium.dgps.de/infos-zum-studium/faecher-im-psychologie-studium/umweltpsychologie/
Author: Alexander Ariu