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And the Year’s Best Paper on Consumer Psychology Is...

Encouraging conservation, one towel at a time.

Every year, the editors of the Journal of Consumer Research give out an award for the best paper published in their journal. I was rather tickled to learn that this year’s award goes to a paper by Noah Goldstein, Bob Cialdini, and Vlad Griskevicius. Their paper is cleverly titled:

“A Room with a Viewpoint: Using Social Norms to Motivate Environmental Conservation in Hotels.” 

The paper presents two field experiments that examine the effectiveness of different tactics for getting hotel guests to re-use their towels. The researchers simply hung a sign on the bathroom door that asked the guests to “please re-use the towels.” On some of the signs, they used the standard environmental appeal we’ve all seen in hotel rooms, stating: 

HELP SAVE THE ENVIRONMENT. You can show your respect for nature and help save the environment by reusing your towels during your stay.”  

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Other signs took advantage of other findings by the team, which had shown that people are very sensitive to local norms about what other people are doing.  In the experimental (“descriptive norm”) condition, the sign read:

“JOIN YOUR FELLOW GUESTS IN HELPING TO SAVE THE ENVIRONMENT. Almost 75% of guests who are asked to participate in our new resource savings program do help by using their towels more than once. You can join your fellow guests in this program to help save the environment by reusing your towels during your stay.” 

This small change in the message boosted the amount of towel re-use almost 10 percent (from 35 to 44 percent).

Another study replicated this basic finding, and found that a very small tweak in specificity, saying that “75% of the guests in room 325” (or whatever your particular room was) boosted the re-use rates even higher, to almost 50 percent. It seems as though our tendency to conform goes beyond merely “monkey see, monkey do” to following the monkeys in my particular tree. 

I got a particular kick out of this paper winning an award, not only because I get to bask in the “reflected glory” of my three coauthors, but also because I have on several occasions teased the first author about the importance of studying people’s towel use, suggesting that he should have retitled the paper: “Towel Management Theory*” 

*Social psychologists are all familiar with an influential body of work by Jeff Greenberg, Tom Pyszczynski, Sheldon Solomon, and their colleagues on “Terror Management Theory”—which examines the influence of mortality salience on various aspects of social cognition and behavior.  So perhaps “Terrycloth Management Theory” would be an even better approximation.

Of course, the research addresses a much larger issue, and isn’t just about how to use fewer towels during our next stay at the Las Vegas Hilton. Other research by this team has discovered that well-intended environmental messages can sometimes backfire, by unintentionally activating the wrong social norms. For example, environmentalists often loudly decry how the majority of the population is acting in wasteful environmentally destructive ways. Although the intention is a wake-up call, the unintended effect is to lead people to think: “Well, if everyone else is being so wasteful, I guess it’s okay for me to turn my thermostat to a more comfortable setting, drive instead of taking the bus, and throw the occasional Big Gulp cup out my car window.”

Douglas T. Kenrick is Professor of Psychology at Arizona State University and author of Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life: A psychologist investigates how evolution, cognition, and complexity are revolutionizing our view of human nature.

References:

Cialdini, Robert B., Carl A. Kallgren, and Raymond R. Reno (1991), “A Focus Theory of Normative Conduct: A Theoretical Refinement and Reevaluation of the Role of Norms in Human Behavior,” in Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, Vol. 24, ed. Leonard Berkowitz, San Diego: Academic Press, 201–34.

Goldstein, N. J., Cialdini, R.B., & Griskevicius, V. (2008). A room with a viewpoint: Using social norms to motivate environmental conservation in hotels.  Journal of Consumer Research, 35, 472-482. 

Greenberg, J., Pyszczynski, T., Solomon, S., Rosenblatt, A., Veeder, M., Kirkland, S., & Lyon, D. (1990). Evidence for Terror Management Theory II: The effects of mortality salience on reactions to those who threaten or bolster the cultural worldview. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 58, 308–318. 

Schultz, P. Wesley, Jessica M. Nolan, Robert B. Cialdini, Noah J. Goldstein, and Vladas Griskevicius (2007), “The Constructive, Destructive, and Reconstructive Power of Social Norms,” Psychological Science, 18 (5), 429–34.

Douglas T. Kenrick, Ph.D., is professor of social psychology at Arizona State University.

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