Despite advanced degrees in engineering, SPEA Assistant Professor Shahzeen Attari explores questions far from those she could have imagined when she left the United Arab Emirates in 2000 to study engineering physics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. It was her curiosity, Attari says, that helped chart the course for her work investigating the psychology of energy consumption.
“To feed my curiosity, I go from problem to problem trying to figure out answers to questions about how and why people behave the way they do…it’s a lot like a game of Whac-A-Mole,” explains Attari, who was born in Mumbai, India, and grew up in Dubai, UAE. “Physics explores really beautiful questions, but I found I was more interested in the universe within.”
Attari began studying the demand side of energy consumption as a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University. After earning a master’s degree and a dual doctorate in civil and environmental engineering and engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon, she continued her research as a fellow at The Earth Institute and Center for Research on Environmental Decisions at Columbia University. Collaborating with world-renowned psychologists at Columbia, the focus of Attari’s work moved deeper into behavioral science to understand why people think the way they do about resource consumption.
From the very beginning, Attari says she was drawn to the demand side of energy consumption issues – particularly the question of whether the way people consume resources can be changed.
“There is a lot of research focusing on supply-side issues of resource consumption, such as developing new, efficient technologies to decrease our carbon emissions,” Attari explains. “My thought process has always been, ‘How do we get people to change their preferences? How do we increase acceptance of these efficient technologies? and How can we decrease our demand for resources over time?’”
The psychology of energy use
Identifying public perceptions of energy consumption plays a fundamental role in answering demand-side questions. In a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Attari and her co-authors characterized people’s general perceptions of how much energy different devices consume in one hour. Her study revealed that people significantly underestimate energy consumption of devices and activities. For example, when considering the amount of energy it takes to run a dishwasher for an hour, on average people tend to underestimate consumption by a factor of 800. Attari’s writings on the topic formed the basis for two online quizzes developed by Slate.com and CNNMoney. More than 40,000 people took the quizzes, helping to generate awareness of energy consumption that’s often elusive.
“As a method of outreach, the quizzes really helped people understand their misperceptions about personal energy use,” says Attari, noting that companies and non-profit organizations frequently contact her to inquire how these types of tools can be used to increase awareness of energy use and change behavior. “The question then becomes – ‘How do we get people to perceive how much energy they consume more accurately, and then consequently, does accuracy lead to conservation of resources?’”
Attempting to find the answers, Attari is currently working alongside researchers from Columbia University and the University of Arizona on a study to capture energy use data from residents in a particular building in New York City. In an effort to make energy use more “visible,” residents are given real-time feedback detailing how much energy they are using to run appliances and equipment, as they are using them. The goal of the study is to determine whether providing such information helps people better understand how much energy they are consuming and if it impacts conservation.
In academia, Attari says, such collaborations often occur “naturally,” especially in interdisciplinary research. For example, analyzing the real-time energy consumption data for the New York City building project requires sophisticated econometric modeling, which was facilitated by Attari’s collaborator at the University of Arizona, who is an expert in this field.
“Collaborations like this feel very natural to me and are very complementary,” says Attari. “In fact, collaborating is often an essential requirement to address complex, interdisciplinary problems, especially those requiring different sets of skills.”
In addition to discovering the nature of public perceptions of energy use, Attari tackles a second piece of the puzzle – the psychology behind energy conservation. Interestingly, her research exposes a significant bias when it comes to assessing responsibility for saving energy. When people are asked “What is the single most effective way you can conserve energy?” they are likely to suggest ways that are very easy and not very effective, such as turning off a light when leaving a room. However, when asked the question about others – “What is the single most effective way Americans can conserve energy?” people will recommend much harder and much more effective ways, like driving less and carpooling.
These findings have led Attari to focus on two models to help explain why people don’t conserve resources. An “information deficit” exists when individuals don’t know which behaviors are most effective when it comes to saving energy, and because they don’t know, they don’t act. According to the “motivation deficit” model, people may know what behaviors are most effective, but they don’t have a compelling reason or motivation to act out these behaviors. Attari points out that both of these deficits may be working together, leading to inaction.
“We’re facing one of the most challenging problems today,” she says. “Decreasing our carbon emissions to address the problem of climate change makes it imperative to understand how to effectively change human behavior to decrease energy consumption.”
Seeing students as critical thinkers
As a researcher, Attari enjoys investigating complex questions; as a teacher, she’s finding new rewards helping students view the world in different ways and find solutions to challenging problems.
“It’s really fascinating to see students learn how to look at the world in a more critical way so they can understand drivers for specific behaviors and become change agents themselves,” says Attari, who joined the IU SPEA faculty in September 2011. “This is the part that is really magical, and you only get to experience it when you are mentoring or teaching students.”
One of the ways Attari is encouraging students to think more critically is through a course she created shortly after arriving at SPEA. Stemming from her research, “Human Behavior and Energy Consumption” (affectionately called HBEC by her students) examines the demand side of the energy consumption problem, requiring students to become change agents for energy conservation issues they see around them. Through this course, Attari aims for her students to understand which behaviors to change and how to change behaviors independent of top-down regulations.
“The great thing about SPEA is that the school allows junior faculty to propose and create new courses,” Attari says. “I’ve always wanted to develop a class like this; it’s a unique and important mix between understanding how we use energy and the behavioral science component of behavior change.”
Working in small groups and employing tactics rooted in behavioral science and social psychology, students identify energy conservation problems, devise and run controlled intervention experiments, and assess any changes resulting from the interventions. Attari marvels at the ingenuity of her students, who are required to present their projects and results in YouTube video form at the end of the semester. One group ran an experiment at two Bloomington pubs, attempting to encourage people to drink more sustainable beers – beers that require less energy to produce and transport. Another group studied how to change purchasing behavior at the local Bloomington Hardware store to get people to buy energy-efficient light bulbs.
Collaboration and teamwork play important roles in Attari’s course, which is currently in its second semester and is open to both undergraduate and graduate students. In designing the course, Attari incorporated a novel approach, encouraging current students to consult with former students to see what they learned from their experiments.
“The course is really a living, breathing lab,” notes Attari. “I have a group this semester that is repeating the sustainable beer experiment, and another working with Bloomington Hardware to change purchasing behavior. Both these groups are talking with the students who ran these projects the last time around to gain insight on how the experiment can be improved to achieve better results.”
Becoming a better teacher
Working with colleagues in academia helps Attari conduct better research. As a young professor, she’s discovering that her students are helping her become a better teacher.
“Students aren’t shy about giving feedback – when they don’t get something, they let me know,” says Attari. “Teaching isn’t unidirectional; I feel like my students are also teaching me how to teach them better, which is very rewarding.”