Behavioral scientist Elke Weber studies how people make energy-related decisions

Tuesday, Nov 29, 2016

Elke Weber, a behavioral scientist, is the Gerhard R. Andlinger Professor in Energy and the Environment, and professor of psychology and public affairs at Princeton University. Weber is jointly appointed to the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment, the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, and the Department of Psychology.

She joined Princeton in September 2016. Previously, she was at Columbia University, where she was the Jerome A. Chazen Professor of International Business, a professor at the Earth Institute and the psychology department, and co-director of the Center for Decision Sciences at the business school and the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions at the Earth Institute.

Weber earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from York University in Toronto, Canada and her master’s degree and doctorate on behavior and decision analysis from Harvard University.

She has built a world-renowned career on behavioral decision science, from measuring and modeling the behaviors of individuals and different groups of people as they deal with uncertainty and tradeoffs in business decisions to how choices impact the environment, with implications for environmental and energy policy. Weber’s research straddles psychology, economics, environment, and policymaking.

Weber has lent her unique expertise at important organizations over her long career. She served on several National Academy of Sciences advisory committees on the Human Dimensions of Global Change, was a lead author on the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report, and is currently a member of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Science Advisory Board. She is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a member of the German National Academy of Sciences. From 2012 to 2014, she was a visiting research collaborator at the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies (PIIRS) at Princeton.

In this interview, we talked with her about her research, its application, and the tools she uses:

Describe your research.

I study and try to understand decision making from the micro to macro level. At the micro level, I explore how attention, memory, and emotions impact a person’s judgments and choices. At the macro level, I study how policy makers can design policies or present policies to the public in the most effective way. Each level requires different tools, methods, and theories. As a result, my research works at the intersection between different disciplines.

What kind of tools do you use for your research? Do you perform surveys?

I do not really use surveys. Because I am interested in understanding the actual psychological mechanisms how people decide to do something (or not) — what is it about a particular choice option that attracts their attention, in what order are options considered and does the order make a difference? [Instead,] we do experiments. For example, we provide people with information about a choice in two different formats (one group might be told that they get an immediate reward unless they decide to wait for a larger reward in three months; the other group gets told that they get the larger reward in three months unless they tell us they want the smaller reward immediately) and we look at their decisions.  This includes which decision they end up with, but also information that tells us how they made their decisions.  This includes the length of time the decision took, what information on the computer screen they looked at (their eye fixations), and sometimes we use MRI machines to examine which parts of the brain get activated when they make these decisions.

How does your research impact policymaking?

You can design a perfect tax policy or clean energy technology, but if people ignore your incentives because they seem insignificant or they don’t trust you and fail to switch to the new technology because they dislike change, that would be a problem. Behavioral and decision science brings additional tools to policymaking.  It explains how to frame incentives to get people’s attention. Rather than taking socially harmful options off the market, behavioral decision science allows for softer interventions, such as persuasion or making the more desirable option the choice default. This approach does not take away choices autonomy, but gently guides decisions. Social norms are another tool. If you realize 95 percent of the population is doing something, then you may just go along with it.

Could you describe specific research that deals with energy and the environment?

There is antipathy towards taxes, especially in the United States and on the conservative end of the political spectrum. We decided to look at people’s willingness to pay a carbon user fee.  I was interested in the fact that many Americans don’t like carbon taxes and yet carbon offsets for airplane flights have become very popular. The question we had is: are these different people who buy the carbon offsets and hate the idea of a carbon tax or is there something about the word tax that puts them off. If you described the carbon user fee as an offset or as a tax, would that make a difference?

We conducted a large online study, where we showed people different choices on an airline ticket from New York to Los Angeles. You could buy a ticket both with and without a carbon user fee included, and we explained how the amount of the fee had been calculated and how it would be used to reduce carbon emissions. Everybody got the exact same information, but half saw the word carbon tax, and half the word carbon offset to describe the user fee.

Bottom line is that if the carbon fee was described as a carbon offset, something like 67 percent of people bought the ticket with the carbon fee, no matter what their political affiliation was. When it was called a carbon tax, purchase of the fee-inclusive ticket stayed the same for Democrats, but went down to 25 percent for self-described Republicans. It made a huge difference! We ended up calling the paper describing this study “A Dirty Word or a Dirty World,” and it shows the power of labels.