• Gabriel Doran
  • 8 min read

14 Communications Recommendations to practice based on a review of behavioural science literature

Becoming Better Energy-Users

We all use energy, every day, from the single light bulb in one of the rooms in our home, to the large data servers storing our information. But we are using too much energy and relying heavily on fossil fuels to produce the amount we’re consuming. Cutting back where possible is good for both the environment and our pockets.  

We are starting 2023 amidst an energy crisis, a cost of living crisis *and* a worsening climate crisis – our need to move to clean, affordable and secure sources of energy is greater than ever. 

Most of the Irish population is aware, engaged and even worried about the climate crisis. We know our energy using habits, individually and collectively, contribute to the climate crisis and need to change – our positive intentions are there, but how can we communicate and guide this into practical actions and better behaviours, at the societal level required? 

SEAI’s Behavioural Economics Unit has developed a new policy guide, aimed at anyone communicating with citizens to encourage energy conservation. The guide outlines 14 recommendations for the best ways of communicating with people how they can conserve energy, detailed below. 

14 Recommendations

1. Give people a range of energy saving tips but don’t overwhelm them

  • “Self-Efficacy” is key – people need to understand what actions to take and feel capable of taking them, so sharing impactful but achievable energy saving tips can increase ‘self-efficacy’ and lead to lasting behaviour change 
  • Sharing too many energy saving options can, on the other hand, lead to ‘choice overload’, stopping people from taking any action at all. So it's important to strike a balance

 

2. Identify energy saving tips that are more likely to be adopted and that have the highest expected impact 

  • The actual impact of an energy saving behaviour is dependent on both the energy saved from an individual undertaking the behaviour, and on the number of people willing to adopt this particular behaviour 
  • People often have a poor understanding of the relative energy used by different behaviours – so more research is needed to identify the key knowledge gaps people have, and information then provided to address them

 

3. Use messages that emphasise loss rather than gain

  • Research has shown that people are generally more sensitive to messages around potential losses than gains – “loss-framed” messages which highlight the cost of not doing a certain behaviour tend to be more effective than “gain-framed” messages 
  • For example – for households, sharing the message that ‘Every degree increase in your room temperature will increase your heating bill by 10%’ may be more effective than saying ‘You can reduce your heating bill by 10% by lowering your room temperature by just one degree’

 

4. Be careful if appealing to financial motivations

  • Despite its popularity, there’s mixed evidence around the effectiveness of financial incentives to encourage energy saving
  • Although it might seem obvious to try and motivate people to save energy by telling them it will save them money, this can sometimes backfire by “crowding out” people’s existing motivations, especially if the amount they would save is quite small
  • In 2022 the SEAI carried out an experimental pre-test of the ‘Reduce Your Use’ campaign, finding that advertising with a financial frame had no impact on people’s intentions to take on energy-conserving behaviours. Energy-conserving intentions were related more strongly to worry about climate change, rather than worry about cost of living

 

5. Highlight positive social norms and avoid drawing attention to negative behaviour

  • People are influenced by others around them. So, highlighting the positive behaviour of others and presenting it as the norm can be an effective way to motivate behaviour change

 

6. Appeal to people's sense of social identity

  • People are influenced by the social groups and identities they belong to and affiliate with 
  • The type of “social norm” messaging mentioned above is particularly effective when it refers to the behaviour of members of a social group or community which the audiences for the messages feel ‘a part of’

 

7. Use language that emphasises collective action 

  • Language in the messaging should emphasise the need to work towards a common goal through people working together, collectively, with “we” instead of “you” being used to address people. “We are in this together”, “Join in” and “Do it together” are language terms to use to emphasise collective action

 

8. Show that you are leading by example 

  • Public sector organisations have a role to play in ‘leading by example’ to reduce energy demand and to adopt energy efficiency measures 
  • Demonstrating efforts by public sector organisations to take on these measures can communicate the government’s own alignment between its announced values and its actions, and influence behavioural change in the private sector and general public

 

9. Address concerns around fairness

  • Maintaining trust between authorities and the public is key in a crisis and with the current energy crisis, alongside the onset of climate policies such as carbon taxes, that trust is more crucial than before 
  • Communications should demonstrate how the crisis response is both fair and compassionate 

 

10. Remember that information alone is unlikely to drive behaviour change

  • Awareness of the need to conserve energy doesn’t necessarily translate to behaviour change – more targeted interventions are needed 
  • The 2006 ‘Power of One’ campaign highlighted the ‘intention-action gap’, where increased awareness was raised of potential savings, but there was no lasting measurable effect on self-reported behaviour or natural gas consumption

 

11. Use relevant and timely reminders

  • Communications for behavioural change are likely to be most effective by targeting the behaviour that needs to be changed at the right place and time 

  • Examples include the 2m markings in public spaces to encourage social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic, and broadcast media reminders across TV and radio to avoid home energy use at peak times which are aired during those peak times, i.e. the ‘Beat the Peak’ campaign from ESB

12. Provide frequent feedback on both individual and collective behaviour

  • People tend to underestimate how much energy they use compared with others. Providing individual-level comparative feedback on energy consumption can help promote lasting behaviour change, particularly where an individual’s consumption is higher than others

 

13. Use trusted messengers

  • The more credible the source of the message, the more likely the message will lead to attitude change 
  • A recent study by the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) identified scientists, the EPA educators, family and friends, as well as community leaders, as being among the most trusted information sources on climate change

 

14. Take a local, community-based approach

  • ‘Local’, ‘grass-roots’, ‘on the ground’ – effectively meaning closer to people and where they are in their daily lives, in their local communities – these types of communications campaigns may be more effective in making key issues feel relevant to people, in addition to helping public acceptance of crisis measures, which might otherwise seem extreme to people in some contexts
  • An example of this ‘local’ type of campaign would be encouraging local businesses to promote energy conservation by highlighting how they try and conserve energy in running their own businesses

Conclusion & Limitations to consider in your communications

Inducing behaviour change requires consideration of what to communicate and how to communicate, but simple changes can be made which are impactful, including: 

  • communicating a range of actions people can take based both on what will be impactful and what people find acceptable 
  • thinking carefully about how messages are framed 
  • highlighting positive social norms and appealing to people’s sense of identity 
  • emphasising the need for collective action 

It is important to use behaviourally-informed interventions that go beyond information provision and to consider the channel used to share information, as well as to identify trusted messengers and foster a bottom-up community approach to behaviour change.

 

Limitations

There are some limitations to this research to note when considering these 14 recommendations for your own communications planning: 

  • These recommendations are based on evidence from different contexts, and there can never be a guarantee that what’s worked in one context will work in another
  • The focus of this review was solely on strategies that encourage energy conservation - the cost of living dimension is also a part of the energy crisis, which may require a different communication approach to help vulnerable households cope and make them aware of supports available

In addition to these recommendations, we always recommend conducting further research to test whether an approach is likely to work in a particular context and to assess the campaign’s effectiveness. 

Shalin Sajan | Programme Executive - Behavioural Economics Unit

Shalin is a Programme Executive in the Behavioural Economics Unit at the SEAI. She is actively involved in understanding human factors that influence sustainable energy behaviours and undertaking a variety of research methods which include evidence reviews, behaviourally informed interventions and qualitative methods to encourage the uptake of sustainable energy solutions.

Shalin came to Dublin in 2019 and graduated with a postgraduate degree in Economics from Trinity College Dublin. She went on to do behavioural research in risk perception at the Technological University of Dublin after which she joined SEAI in 2022. She hails from a southern state in India named Kerala where she has collaborated with the Government of Kerala to pilot a behavioural intervention to encourage recycling behaviours among school students.

Shalin loves to go on long drives, listen to music and will never say ‘no’ to a good crime thriller novel or film.