Energy efficiency sounds like a good idea on multiple fronts; mitigating global warming, reducing dependence on foreign oil and saving money. Conservatives and liberals may disagree about the first reason, but you would expect both of them to enthusiastically embrace energy efficiency based on the other two reasons. Yet we find attitudes toward energy efficiency split along politically ideological lines in this country. Why? A new study suggests one simple potential reason: the liberal environmental messaging associated with energy efficiency may discourage conservatives from using such technologies.

That is the conclusion of a study done by researchers from Duke University and the University of Pennsylvania which was published last week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The United States with its two-party system and the traditional split among liberals and conservatives in matters of environmentalism is a good test case for this kind of project. The researchers’ goal was two-fold; firstly, to investigate how people’s political inclination tracks with their attitudes about energy efficiency, and secondly how that attitude is influenced by the individual reasons typically enunciated by proponents of energy efficiency.

To examine these factors the researchers carried out two studies, Study 1 and Study 2. Study 1 looked at a sample of about 700 individuals aged 19-81. They were provided information about the benefits of energy efficiency and then asked what psychological value they placed on energy efficiency itself and on the three benefits of energy efficiency: reducing carbon emissions, dependence on foreign oil and cost. The study found out that political leaning tracks well not just with general attitudes about energy efficiency but also with the individual benefits. Not surprisingly, conservatives placed the least value on reducing carbon emissions; what was surprising was that reducing cost and foreign oil dependence didn’t rank high on their priorities either. There was also a split along gender lines. The paper summarizes the findings of Study 1:

As expected, the more conservative participants were, the less they favored investing in energy-efficient technology. With regard to individuals’ psychological valuation of the environment, energy independence, and energy costs, all three judgments were associated with participants’ political ideology: The more conservative participants were, the less psychological value they placed on all these concerns. However, the ideological divide was greatest for reduction of carbon emissions, indicating the polarizing nature of environmental concerns (and the relatively broader appeal of energy independence and cost concerns across ideological lines). In additional analyses, we also included a sex × ideology interaction term, because conservative males tend to express the greatest denial of climate change. This interaction was a significant predictor for the valuation of carbon emission reductions but did not predict investment in energy efficiency or ratings for the other values.

This is an intriguing result but I have two thoughts about it. Firstly, the differences in attitude did not differ dramatically between conservatives and liberals although they reached statistical significance. Secondly, I think it would have been quite interesting to run a few more experiments in which participants were blinded to one or more of the three benefits of energy efficiency. For instance, what would conservatives say if they were told that the primary goal of energy efficiency is to reduce long-term cost? Psychological research has demonstrated the influence of prior information on consequent decision making and it would have been valuable to examine this influence in the present study.

Study 2 was smaller but much more interesting. In it participants were given $2 to buy either a standard incandescent light bulb or a fluorescent CFL light bulb. The CFL cost $1.50 and was more expensive than the standard $0.50 bulb. They could keep the change. Both liberals and conservatives were then provided information about the advantages of the CFL bulb, including its longer life and the significant long-term savings from it. Now comes the interesting part. The study was split into two sub-studies. In one case there was an environmental label (for instance one saying “Protect the Environment”) on the CFL bulb. In the other case there was no label.

What the researchers found out was that there was a marked difference between the choices of conservatives in the two cases. In the first case the label put them off in spite of the cost savings; seeing a connection with the environment closed their mind to the other benefits. In the second case without the label, the benefits of the CFL swayed their minds. The trends also held for moderate conservatives. The implications are clear; environmental messaging can actually discourage conservatives even from trying out technology that promises other clear benefits.

Here are some other interesting observations. When the prices of the bulbs were the same, then the label did not matter; all participants picked the CFL bulb, reflecting the dominance of both short-term and long-term economic concerns over others. In addition liberals always picked the CFL bulb, irrespective of its price.

Summarizing the results of Study 2, the researchers say that:

These findings indicate that connecting energy-efficient products to environmental concerns can negatively affect the demand for these products, specifically among persons in the United States who are more politically conservative. Although the majority of participants, regardless of ideology, selected the more expensive energy-efficient light bulb when it was unlabeled, the more moderate and conservative participants were less likely to purchase this option when an environmental label was attached to it.

The study (with all the usual caveats including sample size and nature) says something that both liberals and conservatives need to understand. Firstly, it’s clear that economic benefits often trump environmental ones for conservatives; at the same time, the fact that the environmental message blinded conservatives to the long-term saving says that ideology can also trump self-interest. From a practical standpoint though, this means that environmentally friendly technologies advocated by liberals are likely to be embraced by conservatives if they become cheap enough, irrespective of their attitudes toward liberal environmentalism.

More importantly, the study shows that the message matters. It tells us that liberals should perhaps tone down their big environmental message if they want to convince conservatives to adopt their products. This would be somewhat counterintuitive to the belief that a greater emphasis on environmentalism is the right way to win conservatives over to your cause. To conservatives the message is also clear; if the economics makes sense, try to ignore the political message. And the most important conclusion of this study cannot be ignored: if you really want to work together, leave ideology aside and focus on what you have in common. That’s the way to move forward.