Electricity no longer seems to be available as a matter of course. We need to change our behaviour in order to utilise this resource in a more sustainable way. A conversation with Dr Christian Berger, research associate at the University of Bern’s Institute for Organisation and Human Resource Management (IOP).

Mr Berger, who or what is our weaker self?

Our weaker self is an expression used to refer to a conflict between short-term and long-term goals. Our weaker self tries to convince us to pursue short-term goals and disregard the long-term ones. It is relevant to many situations in life, for instance when making decisions about consuming or saving, or even choosing between going for a daily jog or relaxing on the sofa instead. Climate protection involves a similar conflict of interests: how can we drive short-term economic and social development whilst living within the boundaries of our planet and ensuring that we maintain climate stability and biosphere integrity?

Why is our behaviour not always optimal, even when we know better?

It’s a difficult question. What exactly does «optimal» mean? It implies stable preferences, but in fact preferences can change. Just because we liked meat as a child doesn’t mean we can’t eat a vegetarian diet when we’re older. If we talk about people’s behaviour in connection with climate change, we can definitely say that humanity is not living in accordance with its goal of protecting the planetary boundaries. Our western lifestyle is a threat to a stable climate and biodiversity. Why do we act in this way? There are lots of different answers to this question. Lock-on effects represent one important factor. These effects make it difficult to change our behaviour – for example due to the general framework conditions, the infrastructure in place, or the incentives we are offered. People who live in the countryside are often dependent on their car as a means of transport, for example. And as long as air travel is cheaper than train travel, it is not surprising that people prefer flying.

Dr Sebastian Berger, University of Bern
Dr Sebastian Berger, University of Bern

How do behavioural patterns arise in the first place?

Understanding behaviour is a complex matter. On the one hand, it depends on our individual «inner life», i.e. our preferences, desires and goals. On the other hand, the external world affects us too, for example via financial incentives, social norms and rules – and as a result of its decision-making architecture. This refers to the deliberate design and presentation of choices with the aim of bringing about a desired decision. This type of architecture can be found everywhere: the picture of a fly in urinals, default settings in apps and software, or the fact that ATMs return your card first before giving you any money. In scientific and practical terms, it is difficult to analyse behaviour because our «inner life» and the external word sometimes influence each other. Incentives and standard practices can affect our preferences. And these preferences in turn lead to new incentives and standard practices due to political decisions.

In this context, what do you think of the Federal Council’s campaign to save electricity?

The Federal Council launched this campaign to encourage people to save electricity on account of the huge risk to energy security in Switzerland and Europe. Information campaigns like this are an important element in calming fears on the demand side. This campaign is no doubt very useful, but we need to remember that it mainly targets people’s attitudes and motivation, without necessarily impacting their behaviour. However, no one from the Federal Council would assume that an appeal to save electricity is the only answer to a crisis of this kind.

How can we encourage people to use electricity more efficiently and sparingly?

In the past, the price of electricity was so low that people didn’t have to stop and think too much about how to save energy. The focus was more on technological solutions, such as energy-efficient household appliances. This is now changing. Price signals are probably the strongest argument to motivate people to save electricity. However, access to sufficient energy is part of the provision of basic necessities. For social reasons, it is not always possible to simply pass on very high prices to the end consumers. Behavioural scientists try to reduce demand for electricity even without price signals. Various studies are currently underway with energy suppliers. Possible measures include agreeing on joint goals for municipalities or neighbourhoods. Or providing information on social norms, given that many people are simply unable to estimate how much electricity they consume compared to others.

Many people are simply unable to estimate how much electricity they consume compared to others.

Dr Sebastian Berger

However, this would require making the relevant data available...

Exactly, and that is often a problem. Energy supply is not a data-centric industry like online retailing, for example. Many providers only know the meter number and perhaps the e-mail address of their customers. In order to carry out targeted behavioural interventions, providers need to gain a better understanding of consumers and their consumption habits. Smart meters are one possibility, but they also pose problems, for example in terms of data protection. I am nevertheless convinced that data-based analysis will become even more important in the future as energy systems become more decentralised, digital and variable as far as pricing is concerned. That is impossible without the appropriate technology.

How can we bring about voluntary behavioural changes so that people will use less electricity?

In behavioural economics, the term nudging is used to refer to the idea of subtly moving people in a certain direction. Personally, however, I prefer the term behavioural architecture. Behavioural architecture is about consciously shaping our environment to accomplish the desired goals. It promises to achieve a change in behaviour without having to push up prices,

i.e. without creating financial incentives. Instead, non-monetary incentives are introduced, such as comparisons with other people in order to save electricity. Recently, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change analysed the contribution that behavioural architecture can make towards protecting the climate and saving electricity. Behavioural interventions were found to be useful when applied in conjunction with price signals. So nudging does work, but the devil, as so often, is in the detail. That is why we regularly request platforms that would allow scientists to create joint solutions with social stakeholders. You can’t simply look for solutions from an ivory tower. The knowledge that energy suppliers have is far too valuable and relevant for that.

How much electricity does your household consume?

Electricity suppliers do not have a standard price, but make their tariffs dependent on the time of electricity consumption (day, night, weekday, season) and the amount of electricity consumed (consumption profile).

Five consumption profiles of typical households (in kWh/year): H1: Two-room flat with electric cooker, H2: Four-room flat with electric cooker, H3: Four-room flat with electric cooker and electric boiler, H4: Five-room flat with electric cooker and tumbler dryer (without electric boiler), H5: Five-room house with electric cooker, electric boiler and tumble dryer, Source: https://www.prix-electricite.elcom.admin.ch/

Would binding targets for saving electricity be more effective?

In principle, binding is always better than non-binding, and strict guidelines are more effective than appealing to people to change their behaviour. And yet freedom of choice is a core value of our society, and we wish to defend it. It would be difficult to set guidelines for individual stakeholders. The state doesn’t know where electricity can be saved most efficiently, and guidelines of this kind would be very tricky to put into practice. In order to implement tariff models, such as time-based pricing, a nationwide infrastructure would be needed. An alternative solution would be to shape the energy markets more actively. It is a matter of working out how to preserve economic freedom whilst achieving savings targets at the same time. If we adopt a smart approach to designing markets, not only with incentives, but also with behavioural science interventions, I personally believe that we will be able to bring about a change without coercion. Markets work well if they are designed properly.

But going back to the idea of a weaker self, how do you motivate yourself?

In two ways. For one thing, I try not to let myself be tempted by anything in the first place. For instance I simply leave unhealthy things on the supermarket shelf and avoid having them in the house. I also make sure I establish good habits. Because if you do something out of routine, your weaker self won’t dare to object. Besides, my wife helps me to achieve my goals. Research shows that having someone else to support you has a positive influence. Our weaker self has less of a chance against two people.


Silvia Zuber
Silvia Zuber

Senior Communication Manager

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