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Are You Keeping Up with the Joneses?

November 29, 2010 - 6:07pm

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Please, before you get irate and start bombarding me with comments protesting my encouraging you to consume more, read on past the blog's title to the content. I'm not encouraging wasteful collecting of more "stuff." Far from it.

I've been trying for nearly 30 years to get people to conserve resources, save energy, use renewable energy—in essence, become more sustainable. The big question is always the same: How can we do this most effectively and efficiently? This question has been perplexing the greatest minds (as well as my own) of policy makers, energy professionals, funding agencies, and the like for a long time. What does it take to change people's behavior so that they act more responsibly, in a more sustainable manner?

I recently read a number of articles on or by Robert Cialdini, a social psychologist and professor at Arizona State University. Professor Cialdini began to study what motivates people to care for the environment more than 30 years ago.

In one study he conducted, his team placed door hangers on the doors of San Diego-area residents once a week for a month. The door hangers carried one of four messages, informing residents that (1) they could save money by conserving energy, or (2) they could save the earth's resources by conserving energy, or (3) they could be socially responsible citizens by conserving energy, or (4) the majority of their neighbors tried regularly to conserve energy—information picked up from a prior survey. A fifth door hanger for a control group of residents simply encouraged energy conservation but provided no rationale. Even though their prior survey indicated that residents felt that they would be least influenced by information regarding their neighbors' energy usage, this was the only type of door hanger information that led to significantly decreased energy consumption, almost 2 kWh/day.

Professor Cialdini conducted another study aimed at determining the best messaging for those doorknob hangars of linen-reuse programs that hotels employ to encourage their guests to refrain from having the towels and sheets changed every day. He and his team tested four slightly different messages in an upscale Phoenix hotel.

  • One of the doorknob cards asked guests to Help Save the Environment and provided information stressing respect for nature.
  • A different card urged guests to Help Save Resources for Future Generations, and provided information stressing the importance of saving energy for the future.
  • A third card appealed to guests to Partner with us to Help Save the Environment and provided information urging guests to cooperate with the hotel in preserving the environment.
  • A fourth card hangar implored guests to Join Your Fellow Citizens in Helping to Save the Environment and stated that the majority of hotel guests do reuse their towels when asked.

Of the four messages, which one do you think was the most effective at getting guests to reuse their towels and sheets? [Drum roll please.] And the winner is: #4. Compared to the first three messages, the final message increased towel reuse by an average of 34%.

On the one hand, it's a sad commentary on human behavior, I think, that herd mentality plays such a significant role in how we act. Are we lemmings, or humans? On the other hand, for those of us involved in promoting sustainable living, it's a fact we can't ignore and we need to use these research results to our best advantage. Let us know if you've already done so, and what results you found.

And hey—if you're not already on the bandwagon, join your fellow citizens by visiting Energy Savers to get started saving energy!

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