Scolding People About Energy Use Often Backfires, Study Says

Last Updated May 4, 2011 4:36 AM EDT

Saving energy is good for both the earth and your budget, so you'd think that if someone offered you a review of your usage to help you be more efficient, any rational individual would jump on the chance. Not so, says recent research from Santa Clara University psychology professor Amara Brook.

To test how feedback on environmental performance affected people, Brook asked more than 200 undergrad research subjects to both fill out a questionnaire on their environmental footprint and also tested them to see how important being green was to their self-esteem.

She then told some students that they were energy hogs compared to their peers and some that they were relatively green. If you think that being told you're sub-par in the energy conservation realm would spur the less committed to action, you'd be wrong. It had quite the opposite effect on those who were not already committed environmentalist according to a write-up of the research on the BPS Research Digest blog.

For people who aren't green minded, alarming feedback on a footprint questionnaire can actually make them less sympathetic to green causes. For students whose self-esteem was tied to the environment, negative feedback on the footprint questionnaire had the effect you'd expect, prompting them to be more likely to write to their politician about environmental issues.

"Ecological and carbon footprints are in widespread use, but the present study suggests that they may fail to promote or even reduce sustainable behavior for some people," Brook wrote.

So before you hand out analyses telling your team who's guzzling energy and who's conserving, think twice about unintended consequences. To get the desired effect and convince your most-energy hungry co-workers to change their behavior, it may be helpful to provide easy-seeming ways to reduce usage along with any negative feedback, or limit using these sorts of surveys "to people who are already invested in environmentalism, such as members of environmental groups," suggests Brook.

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(Image courtesy of Flickr user Lara604, CC 2.0)
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    Jessica lives in London where she works as a freelance writer with interests in green business and tech, management, and marketing.