I first met Shahzeen Attari at a Society of Professional Journalists Conference in Miami, 2011. She was invited to the conference because of her expertise studying human psychology and perceptions of energy use. An Assistant Professor at Indiana University-Bloomington’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs, Attari was on a panel called “Climate Change As a Cultural Issue.”

As part of her presentation, she stated her two main areas of study.

1) Making the invisible, visible: In other words, how do we understand how much energy we are using by our daily activities?

2) Why don’t people act? Exploring issues of motivation around decreasing one’s energy consumption — as well as responding to climate change.

As for the first area of study, her work was translated into a quiz by slate.com, tracking one’s understanding of energy use. Here’s a sample question:

Assume a 100-watt incandescent light bulb uses 100 units of energy per hour. How many units per hour do you think the following appliances use?

•A compact-fluorescent light bulb of the same brightness?
•A desktop computer?
•A laptop computer?
•A stereo
•A dishwasher?

I did not do well on the test, overestimating some while underestimating others.

(Correct answers for this portion of the test are at the end of this story.)

Attari and I recently spoke by phone.

Shahzeen Attari. Photo by Mark Lee.

Shahzeen Attari, with her dog, Savannah. Photo by Mark Lee.

ILG: Let’s start off with your interest in making the invisible, visible.

ATTARI: Some of my previous work has shown that people severely underestimate energy consumption for devices and activities that in reality actually consume a lot ofenergy. For example, if you were to ask someone how much energy a dishwashing machine would use in an hour, on average they would tend to underestimate it by factor of 800 times less than what it actually consumes.

This underestimation may be due to people thinking about low energy using devices, such as a light bulb or a laptop computer, when they think about energy consumption in general. They may tend to anchor on these small activities when they’re thinking about large activities, and that leads to an underestimation because they tend to insufficient adjustment their perceptions for larger energy consuming activities. This phenomenon is called “anchoring and insufficient adjustment”. Another reason why people may not know how much energy different appliances use is because we tend not to pay that much attention to energy use in general.

ILG: So are there ways to make our energy consumption more visible to us, more available to our cognitive working memory?

ATTARI: Some researchers are working on using real-time energy consumption feedback of how much energy different appliances use minute-by-minute to make energy use more visible to people. Our research group (Indiana University, Columbia University and Arizona University) currently has a study in Manhattan where we are looking at real-time energy use data from participants in a building. We are trying to answer the following question: does providing energy consumption information in such a granulated way the best way of presenting information so that people understand how much energy they are using? The jury is still out.

ILG: That speaks to the other area of your research: motivation.

ATTARI: Right. I’m currently working on a project where we found biases in what people are willing to do themselves to decrease their energy consumption versus what they want others to do to decrease their energy consumption. So when you ask someone for the single most effective thing they can do to conserve energy, they tend to list easier behaviors and behaviors that may not be very effective, like turning off the light when they leave the room. However, when we actually reframed the question and ask, what is the single most effective behavior that other Americans can do to decrease their energy consumption, responses changed quite dramatically. People talked about driving less, carpooling, walking instead of driving, etc. So the behaviors are much more effective, but they are much harder to do.

ILG: Let’s back up, did you say that when they were asked what other people could do, they suggested carpooling and walking?

ATTARI: Yes. Pretty interesting finding. We are linking this finding to a theory called the “Fundamental Attribution Error” or also called the Actor-Observer Bias. So what that means is that you understand as an individual why your behaviors are constrained, you know about your situational factors, but you might not know about other people’s situational factors. You might think that you can’t drive less than what you’re already doing, but other people could. So maybe they should be doing these more effective behaviors.

So I am working on exploring two separate models of why people do not act: the information deficit model and the motivation deficit model. The information deficit model basically says that people don’t know what behaviors are really effective so that is why they do not do them. The motivation deficit model says that people may know what behaviors are really effective, but they do not want to act out those behaviors because they lack compelling motivation, that is, let someone else act out those effective behaviors.

ILG: It’s easier if someone else does it.

ATTARI: And that is the huge challenge we are facing right now- how to effectively change human behavior to decrease energy consumption without decreasing welfare or happiness.

ILG: Let’s take something in real time. Right now, as we’re talking, there’s somebody outside this window using a leaf blower. A leaf blower seems to be a remarkably profligate appliance. It’s a combustion engine, it burns petrol and it just creates a lot of air that — well, the dude could use a rake.

ATTARI: But if you were to rake, let’s say, a couple of acres, it would take a long time and it may be viewed as really hard to do. That is why people employ some of these technologies. And technology is neither good nor bad; it’s really a double-edged sword when it comes to energy consumption. You could even have an efficient leaf blower, but you still have to realize it consumes quite a bit of energy.

ILG: How does your research find its way to the public? For example, the study that ended up on slate.com.

ATTARI: Slate contacted us to build awareness among its readers about energy consumption for Earth Day. We worked with them to launch their online survey, that was taken by over 13,000 people, which is fantastic. So all of these people are taking the test and at the end they say, “Oh my goodness. I didn’t realize I how much energy different devices consume in one hour!”

I think this sort of creative outreach starts attacking the information deficit model. It tries to make people a little more informed about how much energy they consume by their different activities.

ILG: What are you currently working on?

ATTARI: The current work I’m looking at is two-fold.

Understanding whether real-time feedback actually makes a difference, and whether the difference is sustained over a long period of time. This is a very important issue, especially as more and more utilities are moving towards smart metering and smart grids. We need to know how much information to present to people, and we need to know what people do with that information. Do they change behavior? Is that behavior change maintained over a long period of time? Are there any spillover effects? Those are the types of questions this study is trying to answer.

Shahzeen Attari. Photo by Mark Lee.

Shahzeen Attari. Photo by Mark Lee.

The second study that I already mentioned investigates motivation deficits, that is why is it that people choose the easier, less effective behavior for themselves and the harder, more effective behaviors for others? I think this finding illustrates that simply educating and informing people about effective behaviors is not enough. Behavioral scientists also need to work on finding the right motivation to helping people adopt efficient technologies and lower their energy consumption.

ILG: You have a new paper, entitled “Changing Household Behaviors to Curb Climate Change: How Hard Can It Be?” So, how hard is it?

ATTARI: Using previous research that identified energy saving behaviors, we asked people how easy or difficult these energy-conserving behaviors would be to adopt in their lives. Specifically: “Please indicate how easy or hard it would be for you to make each of the following changes. Please consider all aspects of the changes, including the physical or mental effort required, the time or hassle involved, and any relevant monetary costs.”

Some examples of the behaviors we were interested in were changing your washer setting, changing your thermostat setting, changing your bulbs, switching to an energy-efficient washer, buying a more fuel-efficient car, tuning your car, etc.

We simply asked people to rate each of the identified behaviors on a scale from 1-7, where 1 is extremely easy and 7 is extremely hard. What we found is that on average  none of these behaviors were in the “somewhat hard,” “very hard,” or “extremely hard” categories. All of the behaviors were clustered in the “extremely easy,” “very easy,” “somewhat easy,” or the “neither easy nor hard” categories.

ILG: Give us a specific example.

ATTARI: Changing your washer settings from hot to cold, that is washing your clothes in cold water, was viewed as between “very easy” and “somewhat easy”.

ILG: Extremely easy, yeah.

ATTARI: Changing 85% of your bulbs to CFLs in your home was also viewed as very easy. A few behaviors that were relatively harder, such as carpooling to work with other people, line drying your clothes, and insulating your windows.

If we are trying to communicate to individuals which behaviors they should change, let’s go after behaviors that save a lot of energy, but that are also extremely easy to do, before we get to behaviors that save a lot of energy but are harder to do.

Another challenge is a phenomenon is called the Single Action Bias, a term coined by Elke Weber. When people are faced with a whole variety of problems, they tend to do one or two things to address any specific problem before moving on to the next problem. So rather than just telling people to turn off the lights or change one light bulb, as experts we should recommend behaviors that are much more effective as people may just incorporate one behavior change to address climate change before they move on to other challenges they are currently facing.

The other question which we did not answer in this paper, is how do you get people to actually incorporate a portfolio of behaviors as opposed to only one behavior to decrease their energy consumption? So how can we overcome the Single Action Bias? That is still something behavioral scientists still need to investigate.

ILG: So where does climate change come into this particular study?

ATTARI: Roughly 20% of our carbon dioxide emissions in the United States come from the residential sector. Scientists have recommended that behavior change can account for a significant reduction in our greenhouse gas emissions (see the “Behavioral Wedge” paper by Dietz et al.). So how do we decrease that 20%? In the portfolio of behaviors that we should be doing in order to decrease our carbon dioxide emissions, let’s go after the behaviors that are easier to do and save a lot of energy and let’s try to incorporate a portfolio of behaviors rather than just one thing.

ILG: When I think about motivation and climate change, what I’ve seen, especially in the past 2 years, are extreme weather events increasingly tied to a warming planet. Most notably, Hurricane Sandy brought climate change into the conversation. Are you finding in your research with your students—or just in your life in general—that the invisible is being made increasingly visible.

ATTARI: Research shows that extreme weather events may become more extreme and prevalent with climate change. However, we cannot say that Sandy was caused by climate change, but what we can say is that storms are becoming more and more extreme and more frequent; warming tends to increase hurricane activity.

Most people think of climate change impacts only occurring in the future, and behavioral economics has provided strong  evidence that most of us care a lot about things that are happening in the immediate moment as opposed to things that happen in the near future — and even less for the distant future. I think that these types of extreme events are compressing time; they are making us get a taste of what is to come, however I am weary of whether experiencing these extremely catastrophic events leads to long-term learning and overcomes our shortsightedness in dealing with global climate change.

ILG: Like Deepwater Horizon. I thought that was going to be a pivotal moment, and it turned out not to be.

ATTARI: So that’s another challenge for climate change: future generations will get impacted and it is people that are distant from us in time and geography. So how do you make the invisible visible? How do you make these impacts of climate change
more visceral to people?

There’s another phenomenon in psychology called the Description-Experience Gap or the finding that people respond differently to the same quantitative information depending on whether it is described or experienced. Scientists have been describing the science of climate change and the impacts that are arising, using information and graphs. It may be worthwhile to help people experience some of the impacts in a controlled setting and see if the experience would lead to changes in understanding and behavior.

ILG: You’ve been viewing people, researching people, designing studies to understand this phenomenon better. Do you think people will actually be able to alter their behaviors?

ATTARI: As an optimist and a scientist, I have to have hope in people. This may be the first time in history that a species can change their current behavior consciously to avoid severely negative impacts in the future. History also shows us that people have a great potential to adapt. The question is how do we get people to adapt with more foresight?

INFOBOX: Attari, at a glance
Born: In Mumbai, India and grew up in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

Ph.D., In Engineering and Public Policy & Civil and Environmental Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, 2009
B.S., In Engineering Physics at University of Illinois, 2004
Currently an Assistant Professor at Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs (SPEA)


Assume a 100-watt incandescent light bulb uses 100 units of energy per hour. How many units per hour do you think the following appliances use?

•A compact-fluorescent light bulb of the same brightness? (Answer: 27)
•A desktop computer? (Answer: 140)
•A laptop computer? (Answer: 48)
•A stereo (Answer: 128)
•A dishwasher? (Answer: 1800)

Take the test yourself.


Fundamental Attribution Error (AKA Actor-Observer Bias): You understand why your behaviors are constrained, you know about your situational factors, but you might not know about other people’s situational factors.

Information deficit model: people don’t know what behaviors are really effective so that is why they do not do them.

Motivation deficit model: People may know what behaviors are really effective, but they do not want to act out those behaviors because they lack compelling motivation.

Single Action Bias: When people are faced with a whole variety of problems, they tend to do one or two things to address any specific problem before moving on to the next problem.

Description-Experience Gap: people respond differently to the same quantitative information depending on whether it is described or experienced.

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