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Rebound behaviours, nudges, competition: energy saving is a matter of mindset

Lowering consumption is not as simple as introducing a new gadget. Besides implementing innovative technologies, it is necessary to stimulate an end-user behavioural change. And cognitive sciences can support energy conservation attitudes.

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Understanding how people decide to use less energy at home or at work is crucial to boost virtuous behaviours. Our reaction to any novelty is so complex that a lot of socio-psychological research has been done to try to make it more predictable. Social norms and influences, the ways we become accustomed to an external stimulus and manage our natural competitive instinct (both towards ourselves and the others) are among the factors to be analysed to characterise and support energy-saving habits. Facing the rebound effect Psychological studies point out the risk of the so-called rebound effect, a sort of recoil leading us not to use the full potential of an innovation. In other words, people use more energy because they can afford it. Kirsten Gram-Hanssen, professor at Aalborg University, Department of the Built Environment, Copenhagen, explains: “Generally speaking, 20% of the possible savings in household heating is not achieved because of the rebound effect”. People turn the efficiency gained through renovation of buildings and smart devices into increased consumption and higher comfort. Therefore, the change of the user’s habits should be studied. Gram-Hanssen says: “From a policy perspective we have looked too much to technology and behaviour as two different aspects, but they are related. Nowadays, we have a lot of tech that actually makes it easy for us to consume more. If it is convenient and comfortable to use energy, we will not lower our consumption.” “Sometimes we have the idea that lifestyle is something constant and we can improve our savings only with technology. It’s not true: lifestyle changes precisely because technology evolves. Think about today’s power consumption compared with that of the Eighties: we use much more energy.” It is therefore essential to implement good communication strategies to affect end-user behaviour. And it is not so easy, Gram-Hanssen points out: “In our everyday life we don’t really care about energy consumption. We don’t think about the use of energy but about its purpose: heating, cooking food, communicating, watching television. Moreover, people often have smart measuring devices, but they don’t understand them.” According to Gram-Hanssen, relying only on the informative part (for example with providing a home energy report about the energy consumption) “we can expect to have some reduction, but only by a few percent.” Making energy ‘visible’ Richard Bull, deputy dean of the School of Architecture, Design and the Built Environment, Nottingham Trent University, comments: “One possible solution is making the energy consumption ‘visible’, enabling people to start seeing on a screen the real and actual impact of turning off lights, correctly managing cooling systems and so on. Keeping an eye on how much the energy costs and on our environmental impact is really important.” Moreover, engagement strategies can be useful. Bull mentions the solutions tested under the EU project eTEACHER, which is studying ICT tools to encourage building users to be more energy efficient. “We have investigated how smartphone applications can connect people and encourage them not to overlook energy,” he explains. “After a long series of workshops to understand what motivates users and to find out opportune recommendations, we developed an app that, for example, exploits people’s natural competitive approach through gamification. This envisages social interaction and rewards. The scientific literature offers many examples of effective energy savings obtained through such ICT tools, typically of 5% to 10% from different contexts and building types.” See the full version of the news here:


sustainable behaviour, gamification, engagement strategies, energy, research, innovative technologies