Conservatives and the battle of the bulb: Three perspectives

Dan Upham

Energy-efficiency is, in theory, something that should appeal across the political spectrum. After all, who wouldn’t want their energy dollar to go further? But a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) came to a different conclusion: “In a real-choice context, more conservative individuals were less likely to purchase a more expensive energy-efficient light bulb when it was labeled with an environmental message than when it was unlabeled.”

Is this simply an example of “cutting off the nose to spite the face,” or is something bigger at play?

To find out, I asked three different Environmental Defense Fund staffers (a communications expert, an economist, and a social scientist) to weigh in on the study. You’ll find their perspectives below, and I encourage you to share your take in the comments section.

From Keith Gaby, climate communications director:

In addition to a personal resistance against “buying into” the environmentalist message, I imagine people living in conservative communities would anticipate some ridicule for buying a green product. Think of having a Prius when the rest of the driveways in your Texas neighborhood have big pick-up trucks: You would be seen as foolishly overspending and falling for a liberal pitch. This same obstacle might prevent conservatives from speaking out on environmental issues, or putting up lawn signs for pro-environment candidates. Of course, liberals respond the same way when their preferences might earn them scorn from their neighbors – imagine having a big pickup truck when all your neighbors in Berkley have Prius’s in their driveways.

Conservatives may also hear their partisan media saying these products are a sham: “CFL bulbs take years to pay back, give off ugly light, and contain mercury,” or “Electric cars often have higher life-cycle emissions than gas engine cars.” And some of these claims may be true, for all I know (I’m not an expert), so there could be rational aspects to the choice not to buy them.

Consider also that liberals are, in part, paying for the psychological benefits these products provided them, e.g., praise from their peers and family who view them as responsible consumers, self-esteem because they feel good about it, or payment of some psychological debt they feel they’ve incurred by being wasteful in some other aspect of their lives. Since conservatives don’t get these benefits, they won’t pay the extra upfront cost of a green product. In that sense, both are making rationale choices – to pay or not to pay depending on whether you are getting a psychological benefit.

In the end, it is a good thing for all consumers to make choices that save energy – they save money and society avoids the costs of pollution. So it’s important for companies to think of ways to present these products that appeal to the widest range of people.

From Gernot Wagner, economist:

Keith’s “identity” take is right on. There is a broad scientific consensus that identity matters in a way that motivates all sorts of behaviors that would appear irrational in isolation.

A good example comes by way of oPower, an energy management software company. A 2011 EDF analysis of more than 750,000 households across the country using oPower software concluded that, on a national basis, informational-based energy efficiency programs have driven individual household savings ranging from an average of 1-3 percent per year. Later, researchers looked at responses by self-identified conservatives and liberals. Among liberals, the savings were 3%. Conservatives reported a 1% increase in energy costs.

But it’s not necessarily what you think at first—that conservatives dislike Al Gore so much that they incur greater electricity costs just to spite him. It’s likely more complicated. oPower operates in mostly liberal-leaning districts, and liberals being told that their neighbors save more electricity want to become more like their neighbors and save more. When conservatives in these liberal districts are told that their neighbors save more electricity, they are reminded of the fact that they are nothing like their liberal neighbors and go the other way.

From Rainer Romero, social scientist:

Maybe I’m an optimist, but I think the really interesting finding of the study is that when you DO NOT label the light bulb as being eco-friendly, you can get conservatives to prefer eco-friendly options. The experiment manipulated both the cost of the light bulb (same price as the incandescent or three-times as pricey) and the labeling of the product (as eco-friendly or unlabeled). In the “unlabeled” condition, conservatives and liberals are knowingly choosing an eco-friendly product, regardless of the low or high price of the eco-friendly light-bulb. When the labeling reminds people of the eco-friendly nature of the product, conservatives turn on the product.

My reaction is that the eco-labeled light bulb at the high price point is “a bit too much” for conservatives. They know that the light bulbs are eco-friendly; they are happy to pay $1.50 when acquiring the product is not presented as a betrayal of their values (which is what they do in the unlabeled condition). They are also happy to buy the product when IT IS LABELED but it is cheap. It is only when it is very costly (three times the price of the incandescent) and it betrays their group that they say “ENOUGH!”

In addition, there is work showing that branding a product as eco-friendly or green is basically tantamount to branding it as a luxury good. So, if you are a conservative, say, in a traditional community, even if you are not particularly religious or particularly conservative, the idea of spending more on what is perceived as a luxury good is wasteful and unnecessary.

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