If you have stayed in hotels at all in the last 10 or so years, you have probably noticed the placards in the bathroom requesting that you re-use your towels. If you’re like me, part of you thinks, “Sure, I can use my towel more than once. I do that at home.” However, another part of me thinks, “On the other hand, the hotel is probably more interested in saving on their laundry bill than in saving the environment, and tossing the towel on the floor is kind of fun.” What you may not have noticed is that different hotels use different messages to try to get us to re-use our towels.

Robert Cialdini and his colleagues Noah Goldstein and Vlad Griskevicius ran an experiment in real hotels in which they pitted different “re-use your towel” messages against each other to measure which were most effective.

The first message was designed to appeal to people’s desire to do the right thing and read: “HELP SAVE THE ENVIRONMENT. You can show your respect for nature and help save the environment by reusing your towels during your stay.” The second message emphasized instead that everyone else was pitching in to save the environment by re-using the towels:  “JOIN YOUR FELLOW GUESTS IN HELPING TO SAVE THE ENVIRONMENT. Almost 75% of guests who are asked to participate in our new re- source 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.”

So, which was more effective? In the end, 44% of hotel guests who saw the “everyone else is doing it” message re-used their towels, while only 35% of the “save the environment” guests did. 

Next, the researchers wanted to test whether changing the nature of the reference group would alter how influential the message was. To test this, they created a set of five cards, including the two from the first experiment, plus three more. The additional three included one in which the reference group was more specific — hotel guests who had stayed in that very room; one in which the re-use habits were called out by gender (males re-used at 74%, females re-used at 76%); and the final card said that “other citizens” re-used their towels. Interestingly, the most effective message was the same-room message. People were more likely to take a cue about how to behave from complete strangers who had happened to once stay in the same hotel room (49% compliance) than they were to take the same cue from other people of their gender or nationality (44%).

So, what was going on?

The researchers concluded that when we look around to find out how we should behave, we look for reference groups that might naturally have a norm, or accepted practice, for the particular behavior we are concerned with. In other words, even if they were strangers, I would be more likely to draw my cues for this behavior from people who might be expected to know something about royal protocol.

Thus, next time you’re watching TV, reading a magazine or browsing a website, take a moment to notice what the reference groups are. See if you can name the group and how the marketer wants you to think about their product. It may be a fun exercise, and it may even save you some money.

Have you ever spent money on something that didn't make you as happy as you thought it would? If so, you're not alone. Is it possible to become happier by changing your spending habits? Fortunately, the answer is yes and by taking some money, happiness, and personality tests you can learn how your consumer choices affect your happiness.

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With these insights, you can better understand the ways in which your financial decisions affect your happiness. Responses to these surveys will also help researchers further understand the connection between money and happiness. To read more about the connection between money and happiness, go to the Beyond the Purchase blog.

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