INTERVIEW — Sustainable Energy Behaviours
This month, we talk to Ulf Hahnel, head of the new Center for Psychology of Sustainability and Behavior Change at the University of Basel. In his job, Ulf focuses on increasing our understanding of the psychological processes underlying energy behaviour and decision making to develop evidence-based interventions to increase more sustainable behavioural practices.
BEHAVEN — Hi Ulf! Could you please introduce yourself and your area of expertise?
ULF HAHNEL — Yes of course. My name is Ulf Hahnel and I'm a behavioural scientist and researcher at the University of Geneva. From June 2022, I'll be leading the Center for Psychology of Sustainability and Behavior Change at the University of Basel as Assistant Professor. I particularly focus on judgement and decision making around sustainable behaviours, especially with regards to sustainable energy transitions, given that the energy domain has such a tremendous impact on carbon emissions and global climate change.
My research is divided into three parts:
Firstly, I try to understand behaviours and decisions. This includes addressing questions like why do we make decisions and what are the cognitive and affective determinants of our decisions? How do values and emotions impact our decisions?
Secondly, I develop evidence-based interventions to promote sustainable change. For instance, to help people invest in more energy efficient products, to make more sustainable mobility decisions and so on.
Lastly, I translate the research findings mentioned in the first two points through interdisciplinary research, to make it more understandable for other disciplines and policymakers and applicable in practice.
In your opinion, how can we best use behavioural science to benefit the environment and what are the advantages of doing so?
Individual behaviour is key in the energy transition to mitigate climate change. This includes one’s direct behaviours, such as energy consumption and investments in greener technology. But it also includes behaviours such as whether one supports carbon and climate policies. For instance, in Switzerland, we recently had a carbon law that was rejected by the public. There were also the yellow vest protests in France, which were triggered by a carbon tax. Indeed, there are different levels where our behaviour plays a substantial role in the context of sustainability.
What behavioural science can do on the one hand is help us better understand behaviour — both sustainable and unsustainable behaviour. Additionally, it can also point out to interventions to effectively change behaviour. To bring about this change in behaviour, behavioural science must work together with other disciplines to apply its principles in practice.
What do you think are the challenges or barriers that we would need to overcome to encourage the development of pro-environmental behaviours, particularly those associated with sustainable energy transition?
One substantial problem we often face in encouraging sustainable behaviours, is bad choice environments. We know that our decisions are not solely based on our stable preferences, but also on the environment in which decisions are being made. We make thousands of different decisions everyday. Here, it is worth noting that information is often presented in a way that people cannot easily comprehend.
For example, with researcher Stephanie Mertens, we conducted a study in which we showed that people have difficulties understanding and integrating energy consumption information such as kilowatt hour information. And in this study, we translated this kind of information into a social rating using a simple scale. We informed participants about the extent to which others evaluated a certain product as environmentally friendly. As a result of this, we saw that we could substantially increase the amount of energy efficient choices when product information was presented in this way — a way that people understand. So, one part of the solution is to help people make better decisions by creating an environment that supports more sustainable behaviours.
Another challenge we deal with in regards to environmentally friendly behaviours and the public perception of global climate change is misinformation and more specifically, ideology-driven information provision and processing. We observe it in the US where there is a public divide on climate change acceptance and action, determined by political ideology. We also see that a lot of misinformation out there is tailored for specific groups in the population.
Furthermore, in Switzerland and other parts of Europe, we also observe a divide between more liberal or left-wing individuals and more conservative or right-wing individuals in terms of climate change action and policy support. For instance, when it comes to carbon taxes and other climate policy instruments, we have to find measures to help people to recognise and fight misinformation — and behavioural science can help with this.
Since you focus on energy-related sustainable behaviours, do you make a distinction between small behaviours like turning off lights when not in use and the bigger ones such as reducing car use? Are these behaviours evaluated differently?
It is indeed important for psychologists and behavioural scientists in this domain to have knowledge about what is practically relevant, what kind of behaviours have an impact, and of course, what kind of behaviour can be changed. This is key because, let’s say, investment decisions can be one quick decision but one that will have a long-term impact. As behavioural scientists, it is important to know that indeed, investment in more energy efficient appliances, shifting to renewable energy, and policy support is key, but also interdisciplinary research in advancing our understanding of these behaviours is just as crucial.
So to give you one example, I am now working on energy communities and how people could, in the future, exchange and trade renewable energy with each other. Of course, this is a future topic, but if psychologists or behavioural science start to talk about this topic in 15 years, these kind of concepts are already defined by economists or engineers, and we need to start from the very, very beginning in order to design environments and systems that are really human-centred.
Can you tell us more about energy communities?
The idea of energy communities is based on the general assumption that we need more decentralised energy, for instance we need more solar panels on the roofs, more wind power and so on. In energy communities, the objective is that you not only produce energy locally but also consume it locally. This means that instead of having a huge central grid, you have smaller entities. In the future, the goal is to have the members of this community get involved in the supply of energy, as a part of the route towards sustainable energy transition. For instance, if I have a solar panel system and perhaps a small battery, at some point, based on information technology, I can decide on which conditions I want to provide self-generated energy to other members of the community.
To test this, we created an online experiment and then integrated the retrieved decision preferences into an energy community model. This allowed us to simulate across one year the impact of human decision making on the performance of an energy community and the grid. Indeed, the market would have actual benefits as the majority of people were observed to trade quite reasonably.
Have you been involved in projects that connect behavioural science to technology in the energy sector?
We have a project with David Parra Maria Lagomasino and Mart van der Kam, in which we work on so-called agent-based models. The idea here is to assess preferences of consumers, that is under which conditions people would adopt new technology related to energy. Here, we are able to model social interactions, co-adoption of technology, and the impact of classic and behavioral interventions on technology diffusion.
This allows us to make predictions on, for instance, how the diffusion of technology would spread in a certain neighbourhood depending on various interventions. We can address questions like, to what extent would one be more likely to invest in an electric vehicle if their neighbour has it? This is an example of how the digital world and the world of behavioural science are quite close.
In the end, what we do and what we test can be translated into information that policymakers can use. In specific projects, we communicate our results to the Swiss Federal Office of Energy. In Geneva, we work with the local energy provider and the Cantonal Energy Office. We're also part of the International Energy Agency network on energy communities and collective energy systems.
In general, which behavioural science methods have you found to be the most effective in encouraging pro-environmental behaviours?
I think one of the most effective ones is indeed the concept of ‘default’ in behavioural science, although ethically, they are among the more questionable interventions. I'm also a fan of what we call ‘boosting’ techniques which act as a complement to nudging techniques. For example, Mario Herberz, from our group, performed a study on electric vehicle adoption showing that people substantially underestimate the coverage potential of electric vehicles. Specifically, we found that US and German citizens underestimate by 30%, what electric vehicles with market-typical battery ranges can realistically deliver.
We then developed an intervention in which we provided participants with tailored information on the amount of annual trips they could cover with an electric vehicle. This intervention increased willingness to pay and in addition, we showed that it specifically targets people who would benefit from electric vehicles. This contrasts with ‘defaults’ which typically work over the whole population and might target people that would have significant financial disadvantages from purchasing an electric vehicle.
Do you think there are any benefits to academics and practitioners working together?
Indeed. I think as academics, we must closely work with practitioners to know what is possible in terms of implementing our ideas. If we create a scientifically robust intervention but it turns out to be too expensive or perhaps even legally challenging to implement, then it does not serve the purpose to create impact in real-time.
Furthermore, it is also essential to be in exchange with policymakers. For instance, regarding the energy sector, do they want energy communities or more flexible local energy markets? If yes, when? Having knowledge on matters beyond academia will better help put the research into practice.
Lastly, do you have any suggestions of either experts, key papers, or books on behavioural science and/or behavioural science applied to energy consumption that you would like to share with our readers?
There is an excellent paper by Gordon Pennycook published in Nature this year that talks about the spread of misinformation. It is concise and quite easy to understand. It not only presents an analysis of how misinformation may spread but also suggests evidence-based interventions in order to decrease the spread of misinformation in the digital age.
Herberz, M., Hahnel, U. J. J., Brosch, T. (2020). Counteracting electric vehicle range concern with a scalable behavioral intervention. Nature Energy. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41560-022-01028-3
Pre-print available on Research Square: https://www.researchsquare.com/article/rs-722341/v1
Mertens, S., Hahnel, U. J. J., Brosch, T. (2020). This Way, Please: Uncovering the Directional Effects of Attribute Translations on Decision Making. Judgment and Decision Making, 15(1), 25-46.
Pena-Bello, A., Parra, D., Herberz, M., Tiefenbeck, V., Patel, M., & Hahnel, U. J. J. (2022). Integration of prosumer peer-to-peer trading decisions into energy community modelling. Nature Energy, 7(1), 74-82. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41560-021-00950-2
Pennycook, G., Epstein, Z., Mosleh, M. et al. Shifting attention to accuracy can reduce misinformation online. Nature,592, 590–595 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-021-03344-2