What’s Really Killing Energy Behavior Change

A seriously geeky analysis of  perceived locus of control and learned helplessness

Shoulder Shrug

For many years, we’ve asked consumers who they most blame for rising energy costs. And for years, respondents have said they most blame either 1) oil companies, or 2) the U.S. government – with utilities much farther down the list. This year, in light of declining natural gas prices, we edited the question, asking who (or what) respondents thought most affects energy costs. With this change, “blame” shifted dramatically to utilities, followed closely by oil companies and the U.S. government.

Most pertinent, however, is who Americans don’t blame – themselves. Only 12% blamed energy costs on their own demand, because 80% of consumers think they use the same or less energy in their homes than they did five years ago. And we know this simply isn’t true ‒  American residential energy consumption hit record highs last year.

This incredibly strong “it’s not my fault” mentality creates a huge challenge for energy conservation behavior change.  According to social scientist J.B. Rotter, perceived locus of control strongly influences whether behaviors are thought to be “instrumental for goal attainment.”  So if the locus of control for home energy bills is perceived to be external, or under the control of “powerful others” (utilities), then individual action is thought to be largely irrelevant. Put simply, many Americans do not believe that energy conservation behaviors will lower their energy bills. And if lowering bills (saving money) is the primary driver for most, then there’s no perceived need or reward for behavior change. 

Compounding the problem is the fact that almost 40% of Americans who’ve completed energy-efficient home improvements or changed energy consumption behaviors (e.g., changed thermostat settings) said they haven’t seen a decline in their utility bills. An applicable psychological concept for this situation is called learned helplessness, which develops when people take actions to address a problem that ultimately fail, thereby solidifying the conclusion that they have no control.

Learned helplessness often translates into a serious motivation problem. Those who have failed at previous tasks are more apt to conclude that they can’t succeed in the future. According to pioneering researchers Steven Maier and Martin Seligman, “Exposure to uncontrollable events interferes with our ability to perceive contingent relationships between our behavior and outcomes.” 

Likewise, the more we succeed, the more we attribute success to our own actions (internality) and the more likely we are to “direct actions toward attainment of desired goals.” In other words, the more we try without seeing a change in our bills, the more likely we are to blame the utility, give up and do nothing more. But if we see bill reductions when we change our behaviors and make improvements, the more we believe we can act to reduce our bills, and the more likely we are to do more.

In order to combat learned helplessness and shift the perceived locus of control for energy, we believe that a systemic disruption is needed. Utilities must accelerate the roll-out of smart meters (and the energy monitoring tools they enable) to increase consumer engagement and education about home energy consumption. Energy efficiency rebates and incentives need to be reworked to reward multiple behaviors and improvements – rather than one-off activities – to help homeowners reach the number of actions required to see a real change in their bills. States and utilities need to more aggressively incentivize residential solar generation, de-couple rates, and make time-of-use billing the norm.  We’ve got to shift the perceived locus of control by creating bill reduction “wins” for consumers before we’ll see real, lasting, behavior change.

Want to learn more about how to create behavior change via your marketing efforts?  Join us for a webinar on this topic on December 13 at 1:00 EST.  Click here to register.

Lee Ann Head

About Lee Ann Head

Lee Ann started Shelton Group's research department in 2000 and now oversees all custom and proprietary research. She directs a staff that designs quantitative and qualitative studies, and she oversees secondary analyses, digging deep to find the nuggets of information that pave the way for successful insights, strategies and creative. She regularly presents findings to clients and industry groups around the country, as well as in her posts on the Shelton Insights blog.

View all posts by Lee Ann Head →

1 Comment

  1. I am not so sure that “learned helplessness” applies to the extent presented in this blog entry. I think the problem lies more in that the metric people are using – their monthly utility bills – is wholly inadequate for assessing the impact of the actions they take. The average utility consumer has no idea how to parse their energy consumption, and energy use behaviors, against the bill they get. Nor do they understand how to analyze their use in the context of variable weather conditions. They have no idea what the cost per unit of energy consumed was last year, three years ago or is likely to be next year or five years hence. They only see that one number – and perhaps add it up once a year – and make simple comparisons without adjusting for new end uses, weather, price changes, etc. But, it is not all their fault. The utilities are complicit by giving customers the barest minimum of information and failing to give consumers the tools they need for appropriate comparisons – including access to their hourly, daily meter data (if it exists at all). Unless individuals can make a direct connection between the actions they take (technology purchase and/or behavior change) to end result (consumption levels, total bill and what they would have paid considering all impacting factors) ) in an easy and convenient manner, they will likely be misguided by bill examination,

Pin It on Pinterest