Don’t stifle ambitious energy saving goals

When a group of students and I learned about the anchoring bias, which refers to our tendency to gravitate towards a pre-defined standard regardless of its relevance, we thought it may influence how people set goals to reduce energy use.  So, we decided to see if the bias was present among professionals who design and operate buildings, which use lots of energy, about 40% of our total in the U.S.

Just changing the anchor changed the goals these professionals set.
Just changing the anchor changed the goals these professionals set.

Before asking the professionals to set their energy reduction goal for a hypothetical building project, we randomly directed each of them to one of three series of questions. One series set an anchor of 90% energy reduction beyond standard practice, one set a 30% anchor, and one set no anchor. As we thought might happen, respondents exposed to the 90% anchor set more ambitious energy performance goals than respondents exposed to the 30% anchor. More surprisingly, even the respondents exposed to no anchor set more ambitious goals than those exposed to the 30% anchor. These results show that we need to be very careful when trying to encourage energy savings. If we only suggest incremental improvements, that’s what we’ll get. A better approach in many cases might be to set a more aggressive anchor. I’m sure you can think of some ways this applies to your efforts to change the world.

This post is based on our paper “Unintended anchors: Building rating systems and energy performance goals for U.S. buildings” in Energy Policy. The full paper is available here (send me an e-mail if you’d like a copy and don’t have access):

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