The Power of the Nudge to Change Our Energy Future

Sebastian Berger in the Scientific American: “More than ever, psychology has become influential not only in explaining human behavior, but also as a resource for policy makers to achieve goals related to health, well-being, or sustainability. For example, President Obama signed an executive order directing the government to systematically use behavioral science insights to “better serve the American people.” Not alone in this endeavor, many governments – including the UK, Germany, Denmark, or Australia – are turning to the insights that most frequently stem from psychological researchers, but also include insights from behavioral economics, sociology, or anthropology.

Particularly relevant are the analysis and the setting of “default-options.” A default is the option that a decision maker receives if he or she does not specifically state otherwise. Are we automatically enrolled in a 401(k), are we organ donors by default, or is the flu-shot a standard that is routinely given to all citizens? Research has given us many examples of how and when defaults can promote public safety or wealth.

One of the most important questions facing the planet, however, is how to manage the transition into a carbon-free economy. In a recent paper, Felix Ebeling of the University of Cologne and I tested whether defaults could nudge consumers into choosing a green energy contract over one that relies on conventional energy. The results were striking: setting the default to green energy increased participation nearly tenfold. This is an important result because it tells us that subtle, non-coercive changes in the decision making environment are enough to show substantial differences in consumers’ preferences in the domain of clean energy. It changes green energy participation from “hardly anyone” to “almost everyone”. Merely within the domain of energy behavior, one can think of many applications where this finding can be applied:  For instance, default engines of new cars could be set to hybrid and customers would need to actively switch to standard options. Standard temperatures of washing machines could be low, etc….(More)”