Vanquishing energy vampires: the failure of feedback

Panel: 9. Dynamics of consumption

This is a peer-reviewed paper.

Kathryn Buchanan, Department of Psychology, University of Essex, United Kingdom
Riccardo Russo, University of Essex, United Kingdom
Ben Anderson, University of Southampton, United Kingdom


Feedback strategies are frequently employed in government policy as a behavioural change strategy. The idea is that presenting people with information about their past behaviour can change their future intentions. Hence feedback strategies appear to rest on the assumption that “if only we knew better we would act differently”. In the present paper we tested the validity of this assumption in the context of domestic energy consumption. In doing so provide a comprehensive assessment of whether feedback can influence behavioural intentions and identify the processes via which it operates. Therefore, across 6 different studies we provided over 1000 participants with feedback about the yearly costs of their homes ‘energy vampires’ - appliances such as televisions, laptops and cell chargers that consume energy despite not being actively used. We presented this information in several ways. In Study 1 we varied whether the feedback was personalised and/or disaggregated and/or accompanied by advice. In Study 2 we manipulated whether the feedback was presented using positive or negative frames (i.e., potential savings vs. losses). In Study 3 we supplemented the yearly costs with comparative information (i.e., lower/higher/comparable to the national average). In Study 4 we provided participants with collective costs (e.g., details of the country’s annual energy vampire costs). In Studies 5 and 6 we attempted to increase the appeal of the monetary savings using visualization tasks. Across each study, regardless of the form in which we presented the information, feedback did not have a significant effect on behavioural intentions. However, feedback did significantly increase knowledge. Such findings are explained by the contribution of a variety of factors including pro-environmental attitudes, existing habits, appraisal of the feedback information and perceptions of the potential monetary savings as "worthwhile". Accordingly, we present a model that accounts for the relationships between these factors and demonstrate that it fits our data across all six studies.


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