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 back-
ground may explain
why Attari, now at Indi-
ana University Bloom-
ington, 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 in Pittsburgh, environmental engineer and
air quality researcher Cliff Davidson,
noticed her interdisciplinary bent
when she arrived with an undergraduate degree in engineering physics. In
The psychology of
saving the planet
By Bruce Bower
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 environment from home pipes,
rather than through a sewage treatment plant, Attari’s team reported in
2017 in Judgment and Decision Making.
Attari hopes to learn if 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
On climate change, Attari’s research
suggests that scientists can spread a more
effective 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 per-
sonal experiences and feelings influence
opinions about climate science. For an
tal engineer like Attari, people
are complex systems, too. s
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
Krantz and Elke Weber
recruited her to the
Center for Research
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 lightbulbs.
Those findings, published in 2010 in
the Proceedings of the National Academy
Shahzeen Attari, 37
ENVIRONMENTAL DECISION MAKING
INDIANA UNIVERSITY BLOOMINGTON
held up e
gaps appeared when college
students were asked to draw a
diagram of how water reaches
the tap in an average U. S. home.
This drawing depicts natural
water sources connected to a
home via “magic” rather than
through a water treatment plant.