Researcher Danny Taufik, consumer behaviour researcher at Wageningen Economic Research, discovered that good intentions can help. But only if those intentions take a relatively large amount of effort to implement.
Taufik investigated the influence of “private commitment” on people’s energy-saving behaviour. ‘A private commitment is an agreement you make with yourself, a kind of resolution, but that you also commit to by signing a document’, Taufik says. ‘Our research revealed that such a commitment makes people feel morally obliged to hold to their own agreement, which results in energy-saving behaviour.’
Pull the plug
The research was conducted as part of an energy-saving campaign by Ouwehands Zoo. A total of 342 people participated. The participants were randomly divided into two groups and were given information on energy saving and its impact on the environment. Subsequently, half of the group was asked to sign a commitment in which they declared that they would not leave their household appliances, such as telephone chargers, laptops and televisions, on stand-by, but unplug them or switch them off entirely when not in use.
A month later, all participants received an email asking how often they actually unplugged or turned the devices off. To Taufik’s surprise, it turned out that the group that had specifically resolved to turn off the devices did not do this more often than the control group. ‘But when took a closer look at the results, it turned out that it was probably because turning off those devices doesn’t take much effort, and most people already did so. Only for those people for whom switching off the devices involves a relatively high amount of effort did the commitment lead to a stronger sense of moral obligation and energy-saving behaviour.’
Devices left on stand-by annually account for around 19 million tonnes of CO2 emissions in the EU. ‘It is therefore important to find out how to move people to save energy’, says Taufik. For example, by motivating them to take responsibility. But that should not be too easy, apparently.
Taufik: ‘Policy makers would do well to focus on matters that take a little more effort, such as airport taxes or acquiring renewable energy. The websites of energy company could have their customers first sign a private commitment, in which they declare that they will make more sustainable choices related to energy. And only then ask if they want to choose for renewable energy.’
There is a limit at some point, Taufik expects. ‘Asking everyone to get rid of their television altogether would probably be too difficult, and then those commitments wouldn’t do much.’