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Motivating Action on Energy in the U.S. (WP-12-10)

Toby Bolsen, James Druckman, and Fay Lomax Cook

When do citizens take action for the sake of a public good? Can rhetoric mobilize individuals to act for the benefit of the collective? Few studies in political science explore these questions in the context of non-electoral behavior. This working paper draws from framing theory and models of environmental political activism to provide a framework to understand how communications highlighting collective benefits (e.g., to the environment), selective costs (e.g., financial), and different accounts of who is responsible for dealing with the extant situation (i.e., individuals versus government) will affect individuals’ decisions regarding (a) capital investments in home energy efficiency, and (b) actions to curtail home energy use. The researchers test their hypotheses with a survey experiment (n=1,600) that assesses behavioral intentions regarding energy conservation and information-seeking behavior. They find that rhetoric can play a crucial role in shaping behavior. When the government is portrayed as the agent responsible for addressing energy problems, people are less willing to act; however, emphasizing individuals’ responsibility significantly increases action. They also find, through a content analysis of news articles on energy issues in the U.S. from 2001 to 2011, that government is the agent most often portrayed as responsible for dealing with the nation’s energy problems. Their results highlight the challenges of inducing actions for the public good in this domain—because demobilizing messages are more prevalent than rhetoric that might increase individuals’ contributions. This has implications for information campaigns promoting energy efficient behaviors.

Toby Bolsen, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Georgia State University

James Druckman, Payson S. Wild Professor of Political Science, and Faculty Fellow, Institute for Policy Research, Northwestern University

Fay Lomax Cook, Professor of Human Development and Social Policy, and Director and Faculty Fellow, Institute for Policy Research, Northwestern University

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