How behavioral science can lower your energy bill

What’s a proven way to lower your energy costs? Would you believe: learning what your neighbor pays. Alex Laskey shows how a quirk of human behavior can make us all better, wiser energy users, with lower bills to prove it.

How many of you have checked your email today? Come on, raise your hands. How many of you are checking it right now?
And how about finances? Anybody check that today? Credit card, investment account? How about this week?
Now, how about your household energy use? Anybody check that today? This week? Last week? A few energy geeks spread out across the room. It’s good to see you guys. But the rest of us — this is a room filled with people who are passionate about the future of this planet, and even we aren’t paying attention to the energy use that’s driving climate change. The woman in the photo with me is Harriet. We met her on our first family vacation. Harriet’s paying attention to her energy use, and she is decidedly not an energy geek. This is the story of how Harriet came to pay attention.
This is coal, the most common source of electricity on the planet, and there’s enough energy in this coal to light this bulb for more than a year. But unfortunately, between here and here, most of that energy is lost to things like transmission leakage and heat. In fact, only 10 percent ends up as light. So this coal will last a little bit more than a month. If you wanted to light this bulb for a year, you’d need this much coal. The bad news here is that, for every unit of energy we use, we waste nine. That means there’s good news, because for every unit of energy we save, we save the other nine. So the question is, how can we get the people in this room and across the globe to start paying attention to the energy we’re using, and start wasting less of it? Continue reading

How we read each other’s minds

Sensing the motives and feelings of others is a natural talent for humans. But how do we do it? Here, Rebecca Saxe shares fascinating lab work that uncovers how the brain thinks about other peoples’ thoughts — and judges their actions.

Today I’m going to talk to you about the problem of other minds. And the problem I’m going to talk about is not the familiar one from philosophy, which is, “How can we know whether other people have minds?” That is, maybe you have a mind, and everyone else is just a really convincing robot. So that’s a problem in philosophy, but for today’s purposes I’m going to assume that many people in this audience have a mind, and that I don’t have to worry about this.
There is a second problem that is maybe even more familiar to us as parents and teachers and spouses and novelists, which is, “Why is it so hard to know what somebody else wants or believes?” Or perhaps, more relevantly, “Why is it so hard to change what somebody else wants or believes?” Continue reading

Want to be happier? Stay in the moment

When are humans most happy? To gather data on this question, Matt Killingsworth built an app, Track Your Happiness, that let people report their feelings in real time. Among the surprising results: We’re often happiest when we’re lost in the moment. And the flip side: The more our mind wanders, the less happy we can be.

So, people want a lot of things out of life, but I think, more than anything else, they want happiness. Aristotle called happiness “the chief good,” the end towards which all other things aim. According to this view, the reason we want a big house or a nice car or a good job isn’t that these things are intrinsically valuable. It’s that we expect them to bring us happiness.
Now in the last 50 years, we Americans have gotten a lot of the things that we want. We’re richer. We live longer. We have access to technology that would have seemed like science fiction just a few years ago. The paradox of happiness is that even though the objective conditions of our lives have improved dramatically, we haven’t actually gotten any happier.
Maybe because these conventional notions of progress haven’t delivered big benefits in terms of happiness, there’s been an increased interest in recent years in happiness itself. People have been debating the causes of happiness for a really long time, in fact for thousands of years, but it seems like many of those debates remain unresolved. Well, as with many other domains in life, I think the scientific method has the potential to answer this question. In fact, in the last few years, there’s been an explosion in research on happiness. For example, we’ve learned a lot about its demographics, how things like income and education, gender and marriage relate to it. But one of the puzzles this has revealed is that factors like these don’t seem to have a particularly strong effect. Yes, it’s better to make more money rather than less, or to graduate from college instead of dropping out, but the differences in happiness tend to be small. Continue reading