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Psychological Factors Influencing the Adoption of Electric Vehicles in the United States

This story is contributed by Ronald Or and Taeik Kim

Introduction

The rise in global population and living standards has created an increasing demand for primary energy consumption from 13,323 Mtoe (million tons of oil equivalent) in 2020 to 16,278 Mtoe in 2050, a projected 22% growth worldwide, as shown in Figure 1. Fossil fuels (i.e., oil, gas, and coal) are projected to account for ~75% of total primary energy consumption in 2050, as shown in Figure 2. Oil (i.e., gasoline and diesel), as the major propulsion source for conventional transportation, are estimated to account for ~23% of total fossil fuel consumption and to produce ~30% of total CO2 emissions in 2050 (Enerdata, 2021). If these trends hold, the Earth will be subject to increasingly negative impacts on fossil fuel reserves, environmental cleanliness, climate stability, and the biogeochemical cycle. In response, nations all over the world have been seeking out ways to build a cleaner, safer, and healthier renewable energy future. It is of utmost urgency to electrify ground transportation to enable mobility with minimal fossil fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. This, in turn, has garnered unprecedented interest in replacing billions of oil-based vehicles with pure electric vehicles (EVs).

Figure 1. Global primary energy consumption projection from 2000–2050. Note. Data referenced from Enerdata. (2021). Total primary energy consumption. Global Energy & Climate Outlook 2050.
Figure 2. Estimated share of major primary energy sources in global primary energy consumption (left) and estimated share of CO2 emissions from global fossil fuel consumption (right) in 2050. Note. The estimated share of primary energy sources in global primary energy consumption are referenced from Enerdata. (2021). Total primary energy consumption. Global Energy & Climate Outlook 2050. The estimated CO2 emissions from global fossil fuel consumption are referenced from Enerdata. (2021). Total CO2 emissions. Global Energy & Climate Outlook 2050.

In the US, transportation has become the largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for ~27% of total greenhouse gas emissions in 2020 (Environmental Protection Agency, 2022). Despite the fact that the US is leading in EV technology and there is growing interest in EVs, the popularity of EV adoption in the US has remained substantially lower than in other comparable countries. For instance, only ~2% of U.S. new car sales in 2021 were pure EVs, compared to ~65% in Norway, ~20% in the Netherlands, ~14% in Germany, and ~12% in the UK (Palmer 2021; Klesty, 2022; Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management, 2021; Kane, 2022; Kane, 2022). This brings up some interesting questions: why are EVs less popular in the US. compared to other countries despite all their benefits? Why have efforts to sell EVs in the US been less successful?

In this article, we aim to address the factors that influence EV adoption in the US from a psychological perspective. First, we discuss common reasons that have prevented consumers from adopting EVs, including high costs and limited battery performance. Second, we examine several psychological factors unique to the US that are likely to contribute to the lower EV adoption rate. Lastly, we offer suggestions and potential solutions to address these psychological phenomena in order to encourage EV adoption in the US.

Common Reasons from General Public

Over the past decade, researchers have investigated consumer attitudes and perceptions toward EVs, primarily from an economic and environmental perspective. Their findings have identified common reasons why typical consumers feel uncomfortable purchasing EVs. The most common reasons include high purchasing cost and concerns about battery longevity and maintenance, described as follows.

High purchasing cost

A study conducted by Egbue & Long (2012) found that potential EV buyers tend to base their purchasing decision on the cost and performance of the vehicle more than on its use of green energy. While 79% of the participants in this study indicated that environmental sustainability incentivized them to purchase EVs, they also cited high cost as the biggest concern preventing them from doing so. Indeed, the average price of an EV significantly exceeds the average price of a conventional vehicle. According to Kelley Blue Book, the average cost of an EV is ~$10,000 higher than the average cost of other vehicles (Cision, 2021). As of May 2022, the average price of an EV is ~$61,000, well above the typical price point of an entry-level luxury vehicle (Naughton, 2022).

Battery longevity and maintenance

The longevity and high servicing cost of the EV battery are also common concerns for potential buyers. As all batteries eventually wear out and need to be replaced, the cost of repair could be a significant expense for EV owners once the vehicle is outside of the warranty. For example, after the 8 years or 100,000 miles warranty for a Tesla, for example, replacing a battery typically costs a total of ~$15,799, compared to ~$4,000 to replace an engine on a conventional vehicle (Witt, 2022; Tesla, 2022; Russo et al., 2022). In addition, many potential buyers have expressed concerns over the limited mileage electric vehicles provide between charges. Cited as the second biggest concern after high cost, many buyers also fear that the EV will run out of charge before reaching the destination, especially if there are no charging stations nearby (Egbue & Long, 2012; Blink, 2022).

Powerful Underlying Psychological Factors

The common reasons described above represent the economic and technological concerns of the general public regarding EV adoption. While these concerns may account for why some consumers are hesitant to purchase EVs, they do not explain why the US has a lower EV adoption rate than other developed countries, given that consumers in these countries are likely to encounter similar economic and technological limitations. Therefore, other underlying psychological factors unique to the US likely play a role in the low EV adoption rate. Social norms and behavioral biases, such as status quo bias and motivated reasoning, may be among the underlying psychological factors influencing the behavior of American consumers.

Social norms

Social norms refer to the shared unwritten rules, values, and standards of acceptable behavior determined by society. Through observation and socialization, people learn from these social norms as a guide to their social behaviors and their understanding of society (Cialdini, 1998). Since the perceived popularity of EVs is based on the types of vehicles one sees on the road, EV adoption is especially sensitive to social norms (Richler, 2019). Social norms could influence people to adopt EVs if they perceive others to be in favor of doing so. On the other hand, the perception that very few people are driving EVs may decrease the adopting rate (Barth et al., 2016). The social norms of the current American society do not seem to encourage EV adoption. With EVs remaining a rare sight on the road, the general American public does not feel the need to switch to driving EVs as a means to adhere to social expectations.

Status quo bias

Status quo bias refers to how people prefer to have things remain the same over changing them. Introduced by William Samuelson and Richard Zeckhauser in 1988, the researchers found that when participants had to make an important decision, they showed an overwhelming preference for the option that maintained the status quo. By instinctively preferring to keep things the same, people attempt to minimize the risks involved with making a change. Status quo bias is often observed in people’s attitudes toward emergent technology that requires changes to their habits or current knowledge. This type of cognitive bias offers insight into why people may intuitively reject new technology like EVs, with some even exhibiting heightened anxiety about the battery technology while downplaying the benefits that EVs offer (Leighton, 2021).

Motivated reasoning

Since EVs are widely regarded as an important green technology to mitigate climate change through limiting greenhouse gas emissions, Americans who have casted doubt on the existence of climate change or are skeptical towards the degree of human involvement on climate change may be less likely to support the implementation of EV technology. Those who discount the consensus view on global climate change, referred to as climate change skeptics, may be driven to discredit the environmental purpose and contribution EVs bring.

Motivated reasoning is the act of biased information processing in which our reasoning process (i.e., information selection and evaluation, judgment, decision-making) is swayed by our desire to reach a preferred conclusion. Our motivation to reach the favored outcome often leads to postulating and justifying our decision-making based on the desirability of the outcome instead of an accurate reflection of the evidence (Kunda, 1990). Given the current social norms of the US and people’s tendency to exhibit status quo bias in face of new technologies, people may attempt to justify their preference for conventional vehicles over EVs through selective information processing and evaluation, especially if they have preconceived skepticism towards climate change and the implications of EVs.

Motivated denial refers to the situation in which someone has access to the facts but still feels motivated to deny them (Wong‐Parodi & Feygina, 2020). According to the World Economic Forum, less than half (45%) of Americans indicated that they trusted climate scientists on climate change findings. The large proportion of Americans doubting climate change may serve as a factor to explain why EV ownerships remain low in the US. Climate change skeptics who are motivated to deny the extent of human contribution to climate change may also show resistance to the effectiveness of EVs as a solution for addressing climate change and hold unfavorable attitudes toward EVs.

Suggestions for Overcoming Psychological Biases

To effectively encourage EV adoption in the US, overcoming these psychological barriers is critical. Policymakers, EV sellers, and environmental organizations could consider implementing the following psychological strategies and policy incentives to shift the attitude of Americans toward EVs and promote the use of the technology.

Improving consumer acceptance using descriptive norms messaging

Utilizing the influence of social norms, policymakers and EV sellers should focus on emphasizing the recent rise in the popularity of EVs to the public using descriptive norms messaging, which involves providing information that describes a desirable behavior as prevalent (Kuang et al., 2020). Governments and corporations should highlight the growing number of new EV owners to portray the increasing social desirability and acceptance of owning EVs. When EVs are viewed positively and perceived as being used by people of one’s own group (e.g., people living nearby, people with similar backgrounds), people may become more accepting of adopting EVs (Barth et al., 2016).

Understanding motives behind American consumers

Identifying the core values of those purchasing vehicles would allow EV sellers to better market their products. Since American consumers tend to be price-sensitive, EV sellers should emphasize the lower long-term costs of owning an EV compared to a conventional vehicle. While the initial costs of purchasing an electric vehicle are often significantly higher, these costs can be offset by future savings in the cost of fuel, federal tax credits, and other operating expenses (The United States Department of Energy, 2021). Highlighting this cost-saving aspect may sway consumers toward EVs in their decision-making process, even if they do not identify as environmentalists (Joselow, 2019).

Policy and government incentives: The Norway scenario

Much of the uncertainty and hesitation surrounding EV adoption stem from the lack of reliable EV charging infrastructure and high entry costs to EV technology. Given that Norway is the global leader in EV adoption, the US government should consider implementing some of the Norwegian government’s policies and incentives regarding EVs:

  • Discount for public parking and toll roads while driving an EV
  • Investment into establishing networks of fast-charging infrastructure on all main roads
  • No purchase or import tax on EV purchases, no value-added tax (VAT) on EV leases, and no road tax on driving EVs, while also imposing a carbon pollution tax on high emission vehicles (Norsk elbilforening, 2021)

Over the decades, Norway’s EV incentives have proven to be extremely effective in encouraging EV adoption. Combined with a world-leading charging infrastructure that includes an abundance of charging stations, Norway has positioned itself as a champion in advocating for environmental sustainability and eco-consciousness that is worthy of emulation from the US and others.

Despite the recent growth in electric vehicle ownership, the US still faces many challenges on the road to achieving mass EV adoption. However, understanding the impact of psychological factors on consumer behaviors and attitudes can help create effective policies, incentives, and interventions that encourage people to embrace this new technology and work collectively towards a greener, healthier, and more sustainable future.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Timothy Suen, Linda Jing, and Eric Zheng for reviewing portions of the draft of this article and providing helpful feedback.

Ronald Or is a fourth year student at Purdue University majoring in Psychological Sciences with a minor in Sociology. He is primarily interested in studying underlying psychological mechanisms that influence people’s willingness to accept change, particularly in the context of social issues and social inequality. Currently, he is a Research-Focused Honors Program scholar and a NSF-funded Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP) grant recipient at Purdue University, as well as a research assistant at the University of Missouri and the University of California, Berkeley.

Taeik Kim is a PhD candidate in the Department of Psychological Sciences at Purdue University. His research focuses on human information processing and decision-making in the context of contemporary social issues, especially on climate change and social inequality. The core question of his research is “why do people resist changing the status quo even when changes are beneficial or even necessary?” He is particularly interested in motivational and cognitive biases that lead people to defend/rationalize the status quo. He utilizes a variety of research methods to answer the question that include survey, experiment, computational text analysis, and so on.

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