Four themes in successful energy engagement

“It can be difficult to engage occupants … where the consequences of one’s actions are ‘invisible.’”

As students, faculty, and operations managers work together to reduce building energy use as part of Yale’s carbon charge project, behavior change has surfaced as one of the primary challenges to cutting carbon emissions. Lindsay Toland (‘15 M.E.M.), the Metrics and Program Manager at Yale’s Office of Sustainability, offers four themes in successful energy-related occupant engagement strategies to help view a building’s constituents as allies and opportunities.
Previously, Lindsay worked at YR&G on sustainability research, from which this post is drawn. Questions? You can contact her at

#1: Message Framing

It can be difficult to engage occupants if they feel an issue does not pertain to them; this can be especially challenging in the energy realm, where the consequences of one’s actions (e.g. GHG emissions) are “invisible.” The challenge only increases if occupants are not responsible for paying for a building’s energy, but there are two ways of tackling this challenge: first, by making sure messages connect to the occupants’ personal beliefs and/or are based on his or her daily experiences, and second, by framing these messages in a positive light. 

Neurological studies show that individuals are more likely to internalize and absorb information when it is transmitted in a way that is both personally relevant and creates excitement. Feedback on energy usage is therefore especially important, as it can highlight the connection between someone’s daily activities and their energy use. For example, communicating in terms of environmental externalities (e.g. trees required to offset emissions) can be more effective in decreasing energy consumption than communicating in abstract terms such as kilowatt hours.
Similarly, messaging is more effective when framed positively and when it highlights opportunities and solutions. An example from daily life: individuals are more likely to buy meat that is labeled as “75% lean” than they are to buy something that is “25% fat” — this simple attribute framing makes a great deal of difference. Pointing out the negative environmental implications of excessive energy usage, while informative, is not necessarily motivating. Consequently, “the possibilities of how to overcome these problems should be stressed, not the gravity of the problems and their possible disadvantages” (Van De Velde). Furthermore, messages that appeal to an individual’s desire to demonstrate achievement to others (e.g. capability, influence, intellect) can be especially effective, as they help underscore personal success.
#2: Signage
Prominent signs that feature images are more effective than text-only signs. Importantly, where the sign is placed plays a key role in how it impacts subsequent behavior — in addition to appearing at eye level, signs should be located in places where they can be read immediately prior to the action being targeted. For example, the further away a “Please Turn Off the Lights” sign is from a light switch, the less likely individuals may be to turn off the light. 
The key elements of effective signage include:
  • The targeted behavior is convenient (e.g. turning off the light requires flipping a simple, easy-to-locate switch)
  • The behavior is precisely specified (e.g. “Turn off the light when you leave!”)
  • The message is delivered close in proximity to the desired behavior (e.g. the sign is directly above the light switch)
  • The message is positive and polite (e.g. “Please turn off the light when you leave!”)
#3: Social Comparison
Some individuals are more likely to internalize behaviors that their peers exhibit, because they do not want to be seen as deviating from the norm. This is especially true in cases of public behavior; individuals may be so uncomfortable with the prospect of others seeing them perform a socially unacceptable act that they will change their behavior. The public health sector has been successful in utilizing this tendency to their advantage — for example, the social norm has shifted from a landscape of many smokers in many settings (offices, restaurants, etc.) to few smokers in limited settings. Energy conservation is similarly “pro-social.”

Importantly, however, creating new social norms does not happen overnight. One way of working towards energy savings as the default (i.e. the norm) can be through feedback and programs that require individual commitment but contribute to communal goals and social identification.

#4: Incentives
Incentives can be a successful tool for engaging occupants on issues of energy reduction. While economic incentives may be the first to come to mind — and these do, indeed, work — occupants are not always directly responsible for paying their energy bills. There are, however, opportunities to get creative with incentives. Economic incentives, for example, do not necessarily need to be real money. Virtual currency in a friendly competition setting; the reward of comfort via a “dress down day” in a business office; or a study break for undergraduate students are all examples of viable, non-monetary possibilities for individuals who may not be automatically inclined to reduce energy usage.
Common Barriers to Successful Energy Engagement Strategies
Before embarking on an energy engagement strategy, the following barriers should be considered and addressed: 
  • Information (e.g. signage, pamphlets) about energy conservation is not enough, and must be paired with engaging activities.
  • Responses to feedback diminishes over time — for sustained change, there must be continued efforts towards awareness and education.
  • Lack of personal control can prevent energy conservation; strategies must take into account whether or not individuals have a sufficient degree of control (e.g. of thermostats or lighting) and can, in turn, be motivated to take action.
  • Concern for safety and personal privacy can be a barrier to energy conservation. For example, first floor residents may not want to open their blinds for natural heat and lighting because they do not want outsiders looking in. 
  • People value personal luxuries, such as being comfortable with the temperature of their work space. However, it is important to note that energy-related engagement strategies are not intended to remove these luxuries, but rather to save wasted energy. Energy savings does not need to come at the expense of personal happiness and well-being.

“8 Great Strategies to Engage Tenants on Energy Efficiency.” Energy Star. n.d. Web. 25 June 2014.
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