Shahzeen Attari


Shahzeen Attari

Carnegie Mellon University, Ph.D.
Francois Fiessinger Scholar 2005

Global Climate Change and Human Behavior: Decreasing Energy Consumption

Where Are They Now? Shahzeen is currently an Assistant Professor at Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs.

Project Description (while EREF Scholar):
This project investigates demand-side management methods to facilitate a reduction in carbon emissions per capita. The project consists of two main studies. First, she uses surveys to understand when and why an individual would accept voluntary actions, soft regulations or hard regulations to curb fossil fuel consumption. Second, she shows how lay perceptions of energy consumed by different every-day behaviors differ from actual energy consumption data.

Her first experiment was a study on preferences to change behavior. Pittsburgh residents (n = 209) reported their preferences for voluntary actions, soft regulations, and hard regulations to (a) limit the number of SUVs and trucks and (b) increase green energy use for household energy consumption. These two goals were presented in one of two motivating frames, as addressing either environmental or national security issues. For the goal of limiting SUVs and trucks, results indicated that participants favored voluntary actions over hard regulations, and soft regulations over voluntary actions. For the goal of increasing green energy, results indicated that participants preferred both voluntary actions and soft regulations over hard regulations, but had no significant preference between voluntary actions and soft regulations. Participants’ environmental attitudes (as assessed using the New Ecological Paradigm scale) had a strong positive relationship with support for regulatory strategies intended to change the behaviors in question. Women were more likely to support voluntary actions than men. The loss of personal freedom was frequently mentioned as a reason for saying no to hard regulations.

Her second experiment studied how participants (n=505) perceive energy consumption and savings for household, transportation, and recycling behaviors. When asked for the most effective strategy they could implement to conserve energy, most participants mentioned curtailment (e.g., turning off lights, driving less) rather than efficiency improvements (e.g., installing more efficient light bulbs and appliances), in contrast to experts’ recommendations. For a sample of 15 activities, participants underestimated energy use and savings by a factor of 2.8 on average, with small overestimates for low-energy activities and large underestimates for high-energy activities. Additional estimation and ranking tasks yielded similar regressive patterns. Across several tasks, participants with higher numeracy scores and stronger proenvironmental attitudes had more accurate perceptions. The serious deficiencies highlighted by these results suggest that well-designed efforts to improve the public’s understanding of energy use and savings could pay large dividends.

Shahzeen Z. Attari is a postdoctoral fellow at The Earth Institute & Center for Research on Environmental Decisions (CRED) at Columbia University. Her research at focuses on the interactions between natural and social systems, where her recent work aims to investigate what motivates individuals to defect in social dilemma situations. In May 2009, she received her joint Ph.D. from Carnegie Mellon University in Civil and Environmental Engineering & Engineering and Public Policy. Her dissertation, “Global climate change and individual behavior: Decreasing energy consumption”, focused on interventions and preferences to change individual energy consumption behavior, and public perceptions of energy consumption and savings.

Shahzeen has received the 2009 NSF/AEESP best student paper award for her paper entitled “Preferences for change: Do individuals prefer voluntary actions, soft regulations, or hard regulations to decrease fossil fuel consumption”, that was published in Ecological Economics, 68 (1701-1710). She also received the most outstanding teacher award for her graduating class in 2009.

Research Publications:
Shahzeen Z. Attari, Mary Schoen, Cliff I. Davidson, Michael L. DeKay, Wändi Bruine de Bruin, Robyn Dawes, and Mitchell J. Small (2009) Preferences for change: Do individuals prefer voluntary actions soft regulations, or hard regulations to decrease fossil fuel consumption? Ecological Economics, 68 (1701-1710)

Shahzeen Z. Attari, Michael L. DeKay, Cliff I. Davidson, and Wändi de Bruin (2010) Public perceptions of energy consumption and savings. Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences