There aren’t many psychologists in Congress (though many members could probably use one), so Rep. Brian Baird (D) brings a unique perspective. He has a PhD in clinical psychology and published two books in the field before coming to D.C. to deal with dysfunctions of a different sort. He has represented Washington’s 3rd congressional district for 12 years, but after this year, he’s calling it quits and heading back home.
Before he retires, he hopes to help his colleagues understand the critical role that human behavior can play in reducing energy use. To change the way Americans use energy, he argues, we need to better understand how they make decisions. Hint: It’s not just about money.
I chatted with Baird about energy use and behavioral psychology last week.
Q. Last year you introduced a bill, HR 3247, that would create a program at the Department of Energy to study the application of behavioral sciences to energy policy. What happened to it?
A. Colleagues on the other side of the aisle began to speculate that it was a secret plot for mind control of the American people. [Rep.] Dana Rohrabacher [R-Calif.] went on Glenn Beck and misrepresented the bill. He said it contains words like “behavior modification.” It does not — you can’t find it in the bill.
On one hand, the argument was, why do we need to do social science research at all? Everybody knows it’s just a matter of economics. Everybody acts rationally. Social science can’t teach us anything new. The same people then said, “This sounds like mind control!” On one hand it doesn’t have anything to offer, and on the other hand it’s so powerful we can control people’s minds.
A [Northwest Energy Efficiency Taskforce] report [PDF] recommended precisely what this bill would have done, which is place much greater attention on behavioral and social factors in our analysis of how we could conserve energy. Anybody who’s followed recent economic theory, or Dan Kahneman‘s Nobel Prize in economics, knows that people are in fact not rational, and understanding those irrationalities helps us craft both our economic and our energy policies. But that seemed to be lost on our colleagues.
Q. What ultimately happened to the bill?
A. [The House Science and Technology Committee] actually passed it, but it has not been brought to the floor. The hope is that if we actually have an energy bill, some of these issues might be incorporated in that rather than as a freestanding bill.
Whether or not the bill makes it to the floor, people in the Department of Energy understand the importance of this and are already beginning to incorporate it. [Energy Secretary] Steven Chu testified before our committee [on March 3] on budget issues and acknowledged the importance of social science. I just spoke today [March 10], literally an hour ago, at a hearing with the EPA; we asked them about behavioral science in their activities.
Understanding how we can promote behavioral change in a constructive way is actually part of what government is about. These folks who get all nervous about government behavioral control … a speed limit sign is a form of behavioral control, you know?
Q. What do you tell constituents who say this sounds like the government trying to figure out how to manipulate and control them?
A. I say to them, thank you for sending us your address. Now we know how to locate you. [laughs]
No, we just try to reassure people. This is not government mind control. This is understanding how human beings interact with technologies, to help them save money. How do we give them information in a way that’s most useful for them?
I’ll give you an example. My gas bill gives me the year’s energy consumption, from February of last year to January of this year. But not January of last year — what I used in the comparable month. I can’t tell whether I’m doing better or worse!
Opower has taken [behavioral psychologist] Robert Cialdini‘s work and made a business model out of this; they give people meaningful information as part of their energy bill. They’ve shown a 3 percent reduction in energy consumption, just by telling people how their energy consumption compares to other people in similar houses.
Science offers ways of figuring out how to help people understand and adapt to new technologies. The example I used in our hearing, which largely fell on deaf ears on the other side, is: nobody designs a fighter plane or a spaceship or a nuclear power plant without human factors engineering. You can’t build a fighter plane without putting people in mockups to see whether they can read the dials, whether alerts make sense, whether the radar information is understandable. That’s social-behavioral research in the applied realm.
These are little, simple things about how to interact with technology. Should adjustable thermostats be pre-programmed at the store so people don’t have to worry about it? It’s not always clear on the water heater how you set the temperature. People say, ha ha, it’s obvious. Well, if it’s so obvious, and people can save money, and people are motivated by the desire to save money, why don’t they do it? The argument that it’s all economics just fails repeatedly, but people continue to make it.
Q. What’s the potential for [behavioral science work in energy policy]? Is it a marginal contributor or something bigger?
A. I’ll state it bluntly: The big debate in Copenhagen is whether we do a 17 percent reduction [in greenhouse-gas emissions] by 2020, but the evidence is clear that with relatively simple changes in our actions, we could reduce our energy consumption by 20 percent in 20 weeks.
Here’s how I would do it: get national leaders, clergy members, political leaders from both parties, Nobel Prize-winning scientists, economists, throw in some pop stars if you want, together and say, “Look, the quickest way to reduce our dependence on foreign oil, to save consumers money, lower the deficit, and improve the environment is to begin to save energy. Here’s how we’re going to help you do that. Every week, we’re going to have one simple, easily accomplished task. On Monday, we’re going to turn the temperature down on our water heaters slightly. Monday next week, we’re going to vacuum the cooling vents on our refrigerator. It takes about five minutes.” It doesn’t make a massive difference, but it makes a substantial difference, and nationwide, it will add up.
It would be the single quickest economic stimulus we could do for the entire country. If we saved just 10 percent in automobile use, which you could easily achieve by slight changes in driving behavior (tire inflation, obeying the speed limit), that’s $50 billion back in people’s pockets. Or you could double that by carpooling once a week; then you’ve got $100 billion.
By the way, most of the changes I’m talking about do not require you to spend any money. You don’t have to go out and buy CFLs, although that might be a bright idea (pardon the pun). You can do this just by behavioral change. I always talk up the example of taking a military shower. Most Americans take showers that are too long, too hot, and under too much water pressure. Take a military shower and you’ll use no more than 30 percent what you did on a normal shower. That’s a 70 percent savings, and no real sacrifice.
Q. How do you address the common impression that behavioral change is code for sacrifice? Carpooling seems like a hassle. Shorter showers seem like a hassle.
A. People say, “I like long, hot showers.” I understand that. Do you like passing $1.3 trillion in debt on to your kids? Do you like having them possibly enlisted in wars to go fight for foreign oil? Do you like the plausibility that by the end of the century, most coral reefs could be dissolving? Not engaging behavior change is also a sacrifice — it’s a sacrifice of our children. We are sacrificing the economy because we’re racking up deficits, partly because we spend so much on energy. We’re sacrificing the environment through ocean acidification and lethal overheating of the planet.
So the choice for me is, make relatively small and not particularly sacrificial behavioral changes or pass crippling financial debt and environmental damage on to my children. That should not be a difficult choice.
Q. Don’t you also need to change public policy and utility regulations?
A. Here’s the problem. I’ve been in Congress 12 years. I said to people several years ago, you are not going to see a cap-and-trade system pass the United States Congress. If you accept that you’re not going to get it, but you still have a problem you have to resolve, try other ways of solving it.
Q. There’s public policy outside of cap-and-trade, though.
A. One of the challenges is, too often we look at the legislative solution. Legislation is one element of a much broader effort to try to address this issue. That effort includes meeting with energy companies, talking with the administration, talking with people like yourself to try to figure out how best we can communicate this message.
If you have alternatives that don’t require an act of Congress, why not start there? Admittedly, we have a much more self-serving generation alive today than the one that responded to the Great Depression and World War II, but at the same time, I think people are willing to make sacrifices for the good of the country. Most people want to do the right thing. We just have to help communicate what the right thing is, and then also point out that in most cases, it’s in their self-interest to do it.
Q. You were part of some health-care town halls that turned contentious over the summer. And then you introduced a fairly modest bill that provoked crazy conspiracy theories. Is the sheer irrationalism of public life these days part of the reason you’re retiring?
A. No. But it makes the task of crafting responsible policy much, much more difficult. When people are so susceptible to arguments designed to inflame emotion, when politicians and interest groups are so eager to pander to that susceptibility, when politicians are afraid to take stands that confront irrationality and instead pander to it or practice it themselves, it makes it very difficult. Just two hours ago in a hearing with the EPA and NOAA, some of our Republican colleagues in the Science Committee argued that there’s no consensus whatsoever about climate change!
For three or four years, I’ve been urging everyone in the global climate debate to quit just talking about climate and start talking about ocean acidification. It’s more irrefutable and ultimately as dangerous as temperature increase. You can demonstrate it on a lab bench. You can speak to sport fishermen and explain that salmonids eat terapods. Terapods perish in acidic water. The water is getting more acidic. Wanna fish? You have to stop ocean acidification.
But everybody’s been focused on global warming, which is a bad choice of phrase anyway. It’s really global overheating. Warming is a nice thing. Overheating is a bad thing. Acid is a bad thing. People get that.
So our messaging has been bad, our strategy has been bad, and our economic arguments have largely been ineffective. One wonders why we haven’t been winning on this.
Q. Other than that, though, things are going pretty well.
A. The only saving grace is programs like ARPA-E may actually produce that game-changing technology that gets us out of this in spite of our worst intentions.
Q. You still have to know something about people and how they’ll adopt that new technology.
A. In the hearing, one of our colleagues suggested using existing natural gas lines going into people’s houses as refueling stops for natural gas-powered cars. Clever idea. But here’s a problem: we don’t think we’re going to blow up when we fill the gas tank. If people aren’t confident they can use the technology safely, then forget about it. The first guy who leaves his gas line on inadvertently and the whole neighborhood blows up, there goes your transformative technology. If you don’t take into account the behavioral aspects of that …
That’s true of most everything we’re trying to do. Forty percent of the nation’s energy is used in buildings: lighting, heating, air-conditioning. But one of the greatest determinants of how much energy a building uses is operator characteristics, as much as building design. That’s a behavioral question. You could build the greenest building in the world — if people leave the windows open and turn the heat up too high, you’re going to have high energy use.
Read more interviews with members of Congress: