President Obama is seeking psychological advice about climate change.

Yesterday, he issued an executive order instructing federal agencies to use behavioral science when developing programs to address rising temperatures and other policies. That’s the stuff of sociologists, psychologists and behavioral economists.

The administration suggests that behavioral cues, like comparing your energy use with a neighbor, can be used to increase participation in energy efficiency and other federal goals. The White House created a group last year to experiment with strategies to change behavior. It’s called the Social and Behavioral Sciences Team, and it’s testing methods that might get people to act differently.

One is a pop-up computer window that urges people to save paper by printing on both sides. The experiment resulted in a 5.8 percent increase in double-sided printing, a potentially significant reduction in the 18 billion pages printed annually by federal workers.

Other efforts failed. An experiment based on research showing that some people will reduce their energy use after seeing that their neighbors use less sought to persuade prescription drug providers to lower their use of addictive opioids. The team sent letters to providers with high-billing patterns showing that their counterparts were distributing lower amounts of the drugs. But the “intervention had no measurable impact,” the White House said in a report released yesterday.

Another experiment used text messages to remind high school graduates to attend college. “Summer melt” is a phenomenon in which up to 30 percent of urban kids accepted to college don’t show up for school.

The team also sent “behaviorally designed letters” to people who might miss the deadline to sign up for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act.

“By improving the effectiveness and efficiency of Government, behavioral science insights can support a range of national priorities,” the executive order says, “including helping workers to find better jobs; enabling Americans to lead longer, healthier lives; improving access to educational opportunities and support for success in school; and accelerating the transition to a low-carbon economy.”

People aren’t ‘perfectly rational’
Some experts applauded yesterday’s unusual move as a signal that the administration is trying to simplify federal programs. It also marks a move away from economic policies that “nudge” people into a form of behavior preferred by the government, like a gas tax that supposedly could reduce driving by raising the cost.

Andrew Hoffman, a social sciences professor at the University of Michigan, says that people might react rebelliously to a gas tax imposed by the government. A rise in its cost spurred by market forces, on the other hand, might prompt them to drive less.

In that way, federal policies should consider the complicated ways that people filter, interpret and process messages. You can’t expect to put a price on something—whether that’s gas, plastic bags or emissions—and get an expected result, he said.

“These are things that sociology, psychology, political science have been focusing on for decades,” Hoffman said. “So to bring in the notion that humans are not perfectly rational, utility-maximizing beings in the formation of policy is long overdue.”

Tom Dietz, a professor of sociology and environmental science at Michigan State University, has studied people’s energy consumption for years. In 2011, he published a paper suggesting that carbon labeling could change people’s behavior—and achieve lower emissions as national climate policies are debated.

Changing behavior on flood insurance
That paper in the journal Nature Climate Change included a label with a black footprint and “CO2” in white print. It would provide the amount of greenhouse gases emitted during a product’s “production, use and disposal.”

Cash for Clunkers is another example of a federal program that was designed with psychology in mind, he said. The program was meant to replace older, less efficient cars with newer ones by offering instant rebates. The benefit to consumers was direct and immediate, he said.

Compare that to tax incentives for energy efficiency retrofits. Dietz ticks off the steps required by the homeowner: Find out if you’re eligible, search for a contractor, fill out federal paperwork, “and months and months later, you see a potential savings on your taxes.”

“It’s almost as if you designed it to fail,” Dietz said. “It’s so complicated, and the money that comes back is so distant.”

The executive order, he added, “could really make life a lot easier.”

Obama’s announcement yesterday focused on a list of federal efforts that behavioral science could help, including automatic enrollment in retirement savings plans and streamlining the application process for financial aid for college.

The administration also says climate-related programs could benefit. Behavioral changes being pursued by the Social and Behavioral Sciences Team could result in more people buying federal flood insurance, which suffers from low take-up rates. Public materials will be “redesigned to present information more clearly,” the White House said.

The team is also working on ways to increase energy efficiency in government buildings, in part by providing more access to daylight. And efforts are being designed to increase the use of renewable fuels in the federal fleet of vehicles, as well as encourage greater use of efficient appliances by communicating the benefits with homeowners.

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC., 202-628-6500