Shahzeen Attari explores the psychology of saving the planet

The engineer takes a personal approach to solving environmental problems

Shahzeen Attari

ENERGY SAVER  Shahzeen Attari is revealing ways to improve public education and help people make effective conservation choices.

Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford Univ.

Shahzeen Attari, 37
Environmental decision making
Indiana University Bloomington

When Shahzeen Attari was growing up in Dubai, her father ran a machine shop. Her mother, a gregarious people person, worked at a bank.

“My curiosity about how things work came from my father,” Attari says. “I learned to love getting to know people from my mother.”

That yin-yang background may help explain why Attari, now at Indiana University Bloomington, found a way to merge the practical and the personal in her scientific pursuits, by blending civil and environmental engineering with public policy and psychology.

At age 37, she has become a leader in the study of how people think about conservation, energy use and climate change. At its heart, Attari’s research explores people’s difficulties in grasping complex physical systems. She has studied the ways in which people underestimate their own water and energy use.

“We live in a world that must dramatically reduce its use of fossil fuels and water, but efforts to encourage people to change their behavior have proven notoriously difficult,” says communications researcher Edward Maibach of George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.  “Shahzeen’s research has taught us much about why that is, and what can be done to improve our efforts,” says Maibach, who studies public understanding of climate change.

Her graduate school adviser at Carnegie Mellon University, environmental engineer and air quality researcher Cliff Davidson, quickly noticed her interdisciplinary bent when she arrived with an undergraduate degree in engineering physics. In graduate school, Attari decided on a joint degree in engineering and public policy. “Students who pursue degrees in engineering and public policy are almost always holistic thinkers as opposed to narrow, focused thinkers that delve only into one topic,” says Davidson, now at Syracuse University in New York.

Attari’s 2009 dissertation on how people might decrease energy consumption in the face of global climate change marked her as a rare physical scientist interested in behavioral and social perspectives. Soon, psychologists David Krantz and Elke Weber recruited her to the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions, part of Columbia University’s Earth Institute.

There, Attari led a study that suggested people know surprisingly little about their daily energy use and how best to save energy. Participants in a national online survey were asked to recommend ways to conserve energy. Volunteers cited less effective behaviors, such as turning off lights, over more effective approaches, such as installing high-efficiency light bulbs.

Those findings, published in 2010 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, highlighted a need for product labels and energy conservation campaigns that do a much better job of informing people how to most effectively reduce energy consumption, Attari says.

Public understanding of the water system also needs an upgrade, Attari found. In the wake of a furor over high lead levels in drinking water in Flint, Mich. (SN: 3/19,16, p. 8), she and colleagues asked 457 college students to draw diagrams of how water reaches home taps.

Nearly one-third of participants failed to draw a drinking water treatment plant that filters and disinfects water from natural sources before delivering it to homes. And 1 in 5 incorrectly drew wastewater returning directly to the natural environment from home pipes, rather than first going through a sewage treatment plant, Attari’s team reported in 2017 in Judgment and Decision Making. Attari hopes to learn whether educating people about how their local water systems work will change their attitudes on policy. It’s an open question whether better-informed citizens would want and demand funding to remedy crumbling sewage pipes and other infrastructure concerns.

On climate change, Attari’s research suggests that scientists can spread a more effective conservation message by shrinking their own carbon footprints. In online experiments she conducted with Krantz and Weber, nearly 3,000 volunteers read different versions of stories about hearing a leading climate researcher advocate for cuts in energy use.

A researcher described as an energy miser at home received much higher credibility ratings than one described as an energy guzzler. Participants reported stronger intentions to reduce their own energy use after reading about energy-frugal climate scientists. The finding held up even among those who regarded climate change as unimportant.

In the future, Attari wants to look at how personal experiences and feelings influence opinions about climate science.

For an interdisciplinary environmental engineer like Attari, people are complex systems, too.

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