Research to better understand energy use

February 22, 2017

Indiana University researchers will study the reasons Americans are confused about energy use in daily tasks. The IU team will then develop an online tool designed to correct those misperceptions.

Given the growing challenges of climate change, energy conservation strategies are sorely needed to stabilize carbon dioxide concentration. Although individual behaviors may be less important than effective top-down policies, they have the potential to aggregate together to create significant solutions.

The National Science Foundation has awarded Shahzeen Attari of the IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs and David Landy of the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences in the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences a $500,000 grant to fund the four-year project.

The research will examine why some people have a good understanding of energy use in the home and by larger systems and why others do not. It will also identify methods to correct misperceptions and explore how people’s understanding relates to energy-efficient choices at the individual and policy level.

“What is truly exciting about this project is that it combines expertise from environmental and cognitive science to address real-world sustainability challenges,” Attari said. “Moment by moment, we use devices that use energy, but we have no idea how much energy we are using. We want to characterize the gap between those who understand energy consumption and energy systems and those who do not. And then we want to help close the gap.”

At the conclusion of the project, Attari and Landy will develop an online tool called the Visual Energy Training Exercise, which will be freely accessible to anyone with an Internet connection. Attari worked with CNN Money and others to develop similar online quizzes that provide immediate feedback on correct and incorrect answers.

The Visual Energy Training Exercise will be tested and fine-tuned by IU students at SPEA and the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences. Then, through a partnership with IU’s Office of Sustainability, the researchers will determine whether the Visual Energy Training Exercise leads users campus-wide to take concrete actions to cut energy use.

“Our goal is to develop a new understanding of the perception of energy use and to know better how to communicate the best strategies for reducing consumption,” Landy said.

The grant comes from the NSF’s Decision, Risk and Management Sciences program, which supports scientific research directed at increasing the understanding and effectiveness of decision making by individuals, groups, organizations and society.

The project is the latest in a series of studies by Attari that have focused on the psychology of energy and water use. In 2016, she explored why Americans are seemingly content to take easy steps to reduce energy use but want others to make major lifestyle changes to slow climate change. In 2014, she conducted a scientific survey that revealed many Americans want to save water but don’t know the best strategy to accomplish the goal. In this grant, Attari will collaborate with Landy, who has previously undertaken explorations of how people perceive and understand other difficult, socially important concepts, such as the national debt, scientific constants, and the racial and demographic makeup of the United States. Landy’s focus on cognitive models of estimation will complement Attari’s expertise in the psychology of resource use.