Illuminating look at politics of energy efficiency

CFL bulbs are more expensive than incandescent bulbs but are less harmful to the environment.
CFL bulbs are more expensive than incandescent bulbs but are less harmful to the environment. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)
Posted: May 02, 2013

How many conservatives does it take to screw in a new lightbulb?

More than if it were liberals.

A new study out of the University of Pennsylvania finds that people who are more politically conservative are less in favor of investing in energy-efficiency technology.

It turns out that they're likely to be put off by the environmental messaging.

Which is ubiquitous.

Energy efficiency has long been touted as a way to stall climate change.

The federal government's Energy Star website promotes energy-efficient products by saying they will "save energy and fight climate change."

But Dena Gromet, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Wharton School,

says "when a purchase is seen as reflecting something we don't value or identify with, it can deter us from making those choices."

Gromet, who received a doctorate in psychology from Princeton University, studies how people's values affect their choices.

In the first part of the study, published online this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Gromet and her colleagues, including Wharton professor Howard Kunreuther, found an ideological divide. In general, liberals valued energy efficiency more than conservatives.

Liberals and conservatives both valued energy efficiency as a way to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil and reduce the cost of energy use.

But conservative support dropped when energy efficiency was tied to an environmental benefit - fewer carbon emissions.

For the second part of the study, Gromet brought 210 participants into a lab and gave each $2 to buy a bulb - either an incandescent or a compact fluorescent. All were told the CFL was more efficient and would save them money.

Lightbulbs are politically charged anyway, given new efficiency standards that have caused some incandescents to exit the market.

Although the standards were passed by the Bush administration, conservative pundits have howled about the intrusion of the "nanny state" into the nation's lightbulb sockets.

In the Penn study, when both bulbs cost the same amount, all but one participant bought the CFL.

To Gromet, it indicated "that people recognized the economic deal they were getting."

Next, the bulbs were priced differently - $1.50 for the CFL, 50 cents for the incandescent. Participants could keep the money they didn't spend.

Both conservatives and liberals bought the CFLs at about the same rate - 60 percent.

But when researchers added a sticker to the CFL package that read "Protect the Environment," only 30 percent of conservatives bought the CFL. Liberals bought the CFL at the same rate as before.

To Gromet, one of the take-home messages is the importance of market segmentation.

"One message might work well with one group, but what are the negative consequences for another," she said.

In other words, if you're trying to sell an efficient bulb in a red state, stick to the savings and keep the planet out of it.

Contact Sandy Bauers at 215-854-5147,, or follow on Twitter @sbauers. Read her blog, GreenSpace, at

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