News Article
July 29, 2013

The Human-Energy Connection: How Culture Impacts Practice

The theme at the Garrison Institute’s 2013 Climate, Mind and Behavior Symposium, “The Importance of Variation and Diversity in Sustainability and Climate Work,” examined how patterns of diversity in “opinions, attitudes, knowledge, behaviors, worldviews, social capital, networks, community, resources and other factors” affect efforts to combat climate change. Drawing on the social and psychological aspects of people’s decision-making and behavior change makes it easier to understand and engage diverse building occupants to practice more sustainable, energy efficient behaviors. Here are key takeaways from the symposium that can assist in understanding behavior change as it relates to sustainability engagement of building occupants.


Avoid Polarization Caused by Overly Specific Messaging

Filmmaker Peter Byck began the symposium discussions by sharing his experiences while filming “Carbon Nation,” which he directed and produced. He found that while people often do not disagree on the concrete issues surrounding climate change, political agendas and media polarize the messages and hinder the ability to find a common ground. Often, environmentally-focused or explicit ‘climate change’ messages and labels  actually discourage certain cultural groups from choosing more energy efficient or sustainable products or behaviors, even if the people don’t disagree with the intrinsic nature of the product or behavior itself.  Different political philosophies, religious beliefs and attitudes on environmental messaging greatly affect people’s choices on whether to adopt sustainable behaviors. People’s minds do not need to be changed in order to change their behavior – instead, the messaging needs to be better targeted. To reach a large, diverse audience – as building occupants can be – the messages need to be equally as diverse and non-polarizing. Success is more likely to come from engaging occupants and asking what they think and believe, instead of telling them what they should think and believe.


Understand the Individuals You are Trying to Reach

In addition to diverse viewpoints, different personalities and behavior traits affect the uptake of sustainability practices. For example, Janet Stephenson, Rebecca Ford and Sara Walton from the University of Otago in New Zealand explored how individuals’ behavior is shaped by their “energy culture” – the interactions between what they have, how they act, and how they think regarding energy. People differ in how they respond to external influences, and by drilling down into the specifics of each household’s energy culture: their energy technologies, energy-related activities, and their norms and aspirations, building operators can begin to unpack the complex decision-making processes and inspirations for action, and thus promote positive behavior change.


Use a Combination of Engagement Mechanisms

A variety of ‘behavioral nudges’ positively affect sustainable or energy efficient behavior change and can be used with a variety of personality types and cultural backgrounds. Elizabeth Keenan, Ph.D. candidate in Behavioral Marketing at the Rady School of Management at the University of California San Diego, described the effectiveness of commitments. Specifically, she and colleagues found that asking people to make a specific commitment to environmentally friendly behavior, in combination with receiving a symbol of that commitment, is a powerful tool to increase the success rate of sustainability initiatives. This and other behavioral nudges, such as urging building occupants to set realistic goals or providing them with positive feedback and reinforcement on their sustainable behaviors, can be successful and scalable engagement techniques for building operators to employ.


If the workplace is viewed as a microcosm of society, comprised of people with diverse cultural backgrounds, political beliefs, ethnicities, ages and other characteristics, it makes sense to understand and foster that diversity and create appropriate messaging and engagement tactics for different people. Tailoring an organizational sustainability program that is customized and multi-faceted to address the unique culture of an organization will help empower employees to change their behavior and create a lasting effect.

July 2013