Sign Up Early for SB'24 San Diego and Save! Spring Rate Ends June 23rd.

Behavior Change
How to Jump-Start Behavior Change Around Energy Conservation

For many years of Pulse studies, when asked who they most blame for rising energy costs, respondents have said they most blame either 1) oil companies or 2) the U.S. government — with utilities much farther down the list.

For many years of Pulse studies, when asked who they most blame for rising energy costs, 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 percent blamed energy costs on their own demand, because 80 percent of consumers think they use the same or less energy in their homes than they did five years ago. Yet 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.

Compounding the problem is the fact that almost 40 percent of Americans who’ve completed energy-efficient home improvements such as adding insulation, buying an ENERGY STAR© fridge or dishwasher, or a new HVAC unit said they haven’t seen a decline in their utility bills.

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.

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.

We understand these mysteries better when we hear that a) the utility actually increased rates, b) the family with the new fridge is using the old one to keep beer cold in the garage, c) the folks with a new dishwasher are celebrating their energy savings by running it more often — partially loaded, d) the homeowners who purchased a high efficiency AC rewarded themselves by going into full comfort mode for the rest of the season.

In order to combat learned helplessness and shift the perceived locus of control for energy, we at Shelton believe that a systemic disruption is needed. To make that happen, utilities must:

  • Accelerate the rollout of smart meters (and the energy-monitoring tools they enable) to increase consumer engagement and education about home-energy consumption.
  • Offer energy-efficiency behavior training. Consumers tell us they want this information, and our research shows us that they need it.
  • Partner with retailers and manufacturers to rework energy-efficiency rebates and incentives to reward multiple behaviors and improvements — rather than one-off activities — and help homeowners reach the number of actions required to see a real change in their bills.
  • Work with states to more aggressively incentivize residential solar generation, decouple rates and make time-of-use billing the norm so that customers are more likely to see immediate, significant rewards for their efforts.

In order to see real, lasting behavior change, we’ve got to shift the perceived locus of control by creating bill reduction “wins” for consumers.

For more insights on American attitudes about sustainability and how to change consumer behaviors, visit