Stanford reflects on Earth Day at 50: Gabrielle Wong-Parodi

Gabrielle Wong-Parodi, an assistant professor of Earth system science, explains how resource-conserving default settings on appliances and other technologies could have substantial impacts on the environment.

Gabrielle Wong-Parodi is an assistant professor of Earth system science in the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences; and a center fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. Her research focuses on applying behavioral decision research methods to address challenges associated with global environmental change.

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Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, Professor Gabrielle Wong-Parodi reflects on the success of using resource-saving default settings on appliances to help make a positive impact.

What is an example of a major environmental success story related to human behavior over the past 50 years?

Resource-conserving default settings on appliances are an example of a behavior-related success story. For example, studies find that having a default setting of a cold wash cycle on washing machines can result in meaningful energy savings. This may not result in a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions at the individual level but when scaled up to other appliances and technologies, the impacts could be more substantial.


Why do you consider it of great significance/importance?

The substantial change in our behavior required to meet the challenge of global climate change can be daunting. Effective interventions are those that make better environmental behavior an easy choice. Default settings are a great example.


What led to the change? 

In an increasingly individualistic society, there is a need to encourage people to take positive steps to protect the environment, save for retirement, donate and more. We know people tend to stick with the default or status quo, since changing it would require effort and it seems to be what is socially desirable or sanctioned. Applying that insight to situations with real climate-related impacts, such as appliances that use energy and water, can create a real win. Using knowledge gained from social and behavioral science, we have made “defaults” a standard feature. This doesn’t mean that people’s behaviors have changed per se, but rather that we have used what we know about behavior to develop strategies for reducing energy and water use.


What lessons can we learn from this success story?

There is more that can be done with behavioral interventions. However, careful research using randomized controlled trials over time is necessary to ensure that steps we are taking are meaningful and will result in real positive change for the environment.