What’s Really Killing Energy Behavior Change

What’s Really Killing Energy Behavior Change

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

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.

About the Author

Lee Ann Head

Lee Ann Head

Lee Ann started Shelton Group's research department in 2000 and paved the way for us to become the insights-grounded creative agency we are today. After 17 years leading our research team, she recently handed down the title of Vice President of Research & Insights, but remains an integral part of that team as she continues to oversee proprietary studies.

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Suzanne Shelton

President and CEO

Suzanne is the voice and the vision of Shelton Group. Drawing on her extensive experience in energy and the environment – and 25+ years in the marketing and advertising industry – Suzanne provides high-level strategic insights for our clients and guidance for our research and creative departments. She regularly speaks at conferences around the country, including Sustainable Brands, Fortune Brainstorm E and the International Builders’ Show, and serves as a guest columnist for publications like Fast Company, Green Builder and GreenBiz.com.

Susannah Enkema

VP Research & Insights

Susannah directs our research team and plays a key role in extracting the nuggets of information that pave the way for recommended marketing strategies and creative approaches. Susannah has nearly two decades of market research and strategy experience, including her role as president of SE Consulting, where she led the services for the likes of DIY Network and the makers of GORE-TEX®.

Laila Waggoner

VP Client Engagement

Laila leads our client engagement process, overseeing activities from both a strategic and a tactical level to ensure our work generates desired results – and clients’ satisfaction. She brings 25+ years of marketing leadership experience to her client relationships, with particular expertise in the homebuilding and remodeling industries as well as member-driven organizations, such as the Vinyl Siding Institute and Plastics Pipe Institute. Before joining Shelton Group, she led strategic marketing teams for Owens Corning’s insulation business.

Matt Brass

VP Creative

Matt steers the creative department in concepting, designing and producing campaigns. He ensures sound strategy and deep insights inform everything his team develops, and works closely with the accounts department to ensure copy and designs will meet our clients’ goals. As a designer and filmmaker himself, he’s also a principal contributor to all of Shelton’s in-house photography and videography work.

Glen L. Vesser III

VP Finance and Administration

Glen manages Shelton Group’s finances and administration, ensuring our internal systems run smoothly so we can provide exceptional client service in a seamless and timely manner. Glen’s financial and administrative expertise has been shaped by decades of experience in a variety of industries, including public accounting, media distribution and health care.

Mike Beamer

VP Business Development

Mike joined our team to help provide strategic vision and foster our agency’s growth by overseeing new business leads and managing agency marketing and website content. He arrived in Knoxville steeped in energy efficiency and renewables – he previously led client service for an agency division in Boston dedicated to marketing communications strategy and branding for B2B and B2C clients in that space.