My name is Matthew Ballew. I am finishing my doctoral degree at Claremont Graduate University in Social Psychology, and I intern with Kara Crohn of EMI Consulting, an evaluation and consulting firm that focuses on energy efficiency and clean energy programs and policies. Understanding how a program connects with its participants on an emotional level is important to assessing program success including outcomes such as well-being and even behavior change. There is a long history of theorizing on the role of emotions in guiding people’s actions and, increasingly, recent research documents the powerful effects of different emotions on behavior. In this post, we offer a definition of “emotions,” three ways to understand their impact on energy saving behaviors, and hot tips for evaluations of behavioral programs and communications.
In comparison to general affect or mood (i.e., overall good or bad feelings), emotions are specific feeling states that are clearly recognized and consciously linked to an object or event; they motivate people to act in certain ways. In the psychological literature, three ways to understand emotions include: (1) whether they are positive or negative, such as feeling happy for taking action or upset for not taking action; (2) whether they are considered moral emotions like pride or guilt; and (3) by their degree of behavioral specificity, e.g., emotions can be tied to specific actions like feeling positively about saving energy or to more general things like worrying about the environment.
Lesson Learned: In my dissertation, I assessed the extent to which these different categories of emotions influenced household energy conservation and broader environmental engagement, such as intentions to invest in energy efficient technologies. Supporting previous research, both feeling positive emotions for saving energy and negative emotions for not saving energy were strong drivers of energy conservation behavior and other pro-environmental actions. Moreover, persuasive communications focusing on positive emotions (e.g., “Save Energy. Feel Proud.”) had a stronger effect than negative emotions (e.g., “Save Energy. Don’t Be Guilty.”) on intentions to save energy and invest in energy efficiency.
Hot Tips: Emotions are a hot topic in behavioral interventions. Incorporating strategies that leverage emotions—as well as measures of emotions—specifically tied to action (and inaction) strengthens the evaluation of behavioral programs and communications. When evaluating behavioral programs and communications, consider:
- Measuring emotions related to performing/not performing actions to indicate behavior change (e.g., expecting to feel positive emotions for volunteering)
- Including strategies to connect positive behaviors (e.g., purchasing efficient vehicles) to positive emotions like pride and, conversely, negative behaviors (e.g., wasting electricity) to negative emotions like guilt to foster behavior change
- Focusing strategies on positive emotions related to taking action; they seem to be especially promotive of behavioral persistence, leading to a virtuous and recursive cycle of positivity (i.e., “feeling good by doing the right thing”)
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