Mental models interview

How we use energy – for example to heat spaces and run appliances — can be greatly affected by how we think energy is used in those processes, and what we think happens can often be different to what is actually happening.

The most obvious reason is that energy is invisible, and abstract, therefore we can often overestimate the amount of energy used by very visible things (such as lighting) and underestimate the amount used by heating and cooling. However, different people can have very Attari et al (2010) and Kempton & Montgomery (1982).different understandings of how much each thing uses.

We pursued research around this interaction with energy with Dan Lockton of Brunel University. Dan spoke to staff at DECC about how they thought energy was used, mapping out what are called mental models.

Mental models are the models we generate in our heads of how the world works: how what we do affects other people and the systems around us. With technology in particular, the models we imagine are often very simplified, and for the most part, this is OK, but energy is an area where our incomplete mental models can cause problems.

The aim with Dan’s DECC study (one of an ongoing series of similar studies that we are doing) was to explore the intersection between the diversity of mental models and people’s behaviour in the workplace. We investigated:

Where do other people (such as colleagues, groups, facilities managers) fit into people’s models of how energy is used in buildings? Is it always someone else’s problem, or do people feel responsible themselves? Do people feel they can do anything to make a difference, and if so, what? Should we try to work with people’s existing mental models or should we try to change them?

Some of the key DECC-specific insights from a series of in-depth interviews were:

  • DECC staff are pretty knowledgeable about energy use (not unexpectedly!); outside the office they are confident about interacting with their home heating system controls, using a range of strategies.
  • People had a range of different mental models of how energy is used in the building, especially around how the HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) systems work. Some people believed that the systems were fully automated, with little opportunity for any human intervention, while others considered the systems to be completely ‘open loop’ and manual, with a decision made about whether to switch the heating or air conditioning on centrally, and then left, with no feedback. Others had a more nuanced picture combining automation and the ability to override the automated systems — this is important because if people assume the system is entirely automated, they may not realise there is anyone they can talk to if they are uncomfortable.
  • People didn’t think there were many behaviour changes they could directly make themselves in the office to reduce the building’s energy use, beyond making sure equipment is turned off when not in use.

One Response to “What is energy use?”

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