• Report

Americans’ perceived and actual understanding of energy


Southwell, B., Murphy, J., DeWaters, J. E., & LeBaron, P. (2012). Americans’ perceived and actual understanding of energy. (RTI Press Publication No. RR-0018-1208). Research Triangle Park, NC: RTI Press. DOI: 10.3768/rtipress.2012.rr.0018.1208


To address the lack of information about American’s perceived and actual knowledge related to energy, RTI researchers measured three concepts: perceived understanding of energy, demonstrated energy knowledge, and the ability to interpret an energy bill. Results suggest that public understanding of energy is multifaceted, and perceived understanding is not directly equivalent to actual understanding in many cases. Results of this survey provide insight into individual and household energy consumption behavior, which has implications for future policy and intervention.

Author Details

Brian Southwell

Brian Southwell, PhD, directs the Science in the Public Sphere program in the Center for Communication Science at RTI International. His large-scale evaluation work has spanned behaviors and audiences, including cancer prevention and screening promotion efforts, national campaigns to discourage drug and tobacco use, efforts to bolster television news coverage of science, and various state-level campaigns. He also has studied public understanding of energy and related topics. Dr. Southwell holds faculty appointments at Duke University (through Duke’s Energy Initiative) and at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and also hosts the public radio show "The Measure of Everyday Life" on WNCU.

Joseph Murphy

Joseph J. Murphy, MA, is a senior survey methodologist in RTI’s Center for Survey Methodology. His research focuses on the development and application of new technologies and modes of communication to improve the survey research process.

JE DeWaters

Jan E. DeWaters, PhD, is an instructor for the Wallace H. Coulter School of Engineering at Clarkson University in Potsdam, New York.

Patricia LeBaron

Patricia A. LeBaron, MA, is a survey methodologist at RTI International with extensive experience in survey methodology and operations.