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What can penguins teach us about energy consumption?

posted Jan 9, 2016, 5:00 AM by Taylan Bele   [ updated Jan 9, 2016, 5:01 AM ]
One of the most pressing concerns in the world is climate change, and this is partly caused by the amount of energy we use. We urgently need to conserve energy and we can learn from other animal species how to do so. Before revealing what they can teach us, we will first outline how energy use reduction is typically approached.

Three ways to reduce energy use

Energy consumption can be tackled at three broad levels. At the technological level, scientists and engineers come up with energy-saving solutions like electric cars and energy-efficient light bulbs. This method focuses on reducing energy by improving the efficiency of electrical appliances. Another answer entails tackling the issue by changing our behavior towards being more environmentally conscious. We have thermostats that monitor our energy use and allow us to adjust our consumption, we are informed on how much our neighbors consume, and we are constantly reminded that our planet needs care. All these facets aid in reducing energy consumption.

But there is a third, often overlooked way to help conserve energy. This approach entails focusing on very specific target groups that use unnecessary energy. Its implementation requires careful targeting and tailor-made interventions, but as a first step, it requires answering the question– who uses unnecessary energy, and why? Unfortunately, little is known regarding individual differences that could provide a definite answer. Our approach is a first to point to an interesting suggestion from psychological research: We need to target people who lack social connectedness. And why, you ask? Let us explain.

Lessons we learn from penguins

To understand why social connectedness should influence energy consumption, let’s first turn to our penguin friends. Penguins are one of the most social bird species and the reason for this is that they need to deal with extremely cold environments. When the harsh Antarctic temperatures drop to a whopping −40 °C, penguins come together to form a huddle and protect themselves and their young from the cold. By engaging in what we call social thermoregulation, these creatures reduce the physiological costs associated with warming up their bodies.

When the harsh Antarctic temperature drop to a whopping -40 °C, penguins come together to form a huddle and protect themselves from the cold 
As it turns out, many mammals use huddling to decrease energy use, including apes, monkeys, pigs, and rodents. This is accomplished by reducing their metabolic rates, which helps resist colder temperatures. Huddling is also linked to psychological consequences, and thus, monkeys that huddle while young have less depression and are more social later on. In addition, monkeys that are better connected to others have higher core body temperatures. This implies that it is not only huddling, but also social connectedness, that keeps monkeys warm. 

Social thermoregulation in humans

Human bodies rely on the same biological principles as our monkey cousins. We also resort to touching and huddling to keep ourselves warm. And just like penguins, our ancestors slept in a group of people just to keep each other warm. But now we have a central heating that does that for us. This, however, doesn’t mean that, to save energy, we need to reduce heating by sleeping with a group of people in one bed. There is another piece of the puzzle that helps us understand the link between social connectedness and energy use, helping us arrive at a smart energy-saving solution.

People who are at risk of using more energy are not merely those without a felling penguin to cuddle with at night, but those who truly feel alone 

Linking loneliness and energy use

As it turns out, people who are at risk of using more energy are not merely those who live alone, without a fellow penguin to cuddle with at night, but those who truly feel alone. Studies have consistently shown that even the feeling of being alone can make people feel colder. 

Lonely people shower longer, more frequently, and use warmer water [2]. They estimate temperatures as lower and prefer warmer food and drinks. When people feel socially rejected, they engage in mood-improving activities, but these activities are reduced if they hold a warm therapeutic pack. And when they are socially rejected, they feel better after holding something warm. All of this implies that increased physical warmth acts as a meaningful coping strategy for buffering feelings of loneliness.

Yet – and here comes the kicker - research shows that social events can rid us of winter’s colds. When it gets colder, people want to be with others more. They experience more socially warm emotions like nostalgia, they rent more romantic movies, and they read more “warm” romantic novels. And even more telling, when people dine with others, they estimate room temperatures as higher. People thus use a variety of social strategies – beside their heater – to warm up.
[1] Don't fall into the trap of reverse inference - 
it is not to say that if you feel cold, you are necessarily lonely! 
[2] This finding has been contested
and this contestation has again been contested.

Reducing energy use through reducing loneliness

What does all of this imply? It implies a clever solution: We can reduce energy consumption through reducing loneliness in society, and, as the Dutch say, “hit two flies with one swat”.

We can reduce energy consumption through reducing loneliness in society 

The effects of both problems’ cannot be underestimated: Energy consumption increases our carbon dioxide emissions and pollutes our environment. Not being socially connected is even more threatening to our lives than obesity, not exercising, or drinking 6 (!) glasses of alcohol or more per day. We need to act quickly as both are very urgent problems, and tackling both at the same time is the smart thing to do.

What we know at this point is insufficient to solidly make this claim. We need to conduct more research establishing direct links between loneliness and energy use. As behavioral scientists, collaborating with an expert on social thermoregulation, we seek to tackle this problem. And we can never be short on experts and support, so we seek your help. Do you want to support our research by funding our initiative? Or do you want to collaborate to jointly tackle these problems? You just need to contact us and tell us how you can contribute.