Upsontedmuilo  via Wikimedia Commons
Source: Upsontedmuilo via Wikimedia Commons

There are many situations in which we would like to influence people’s behavior to do something to benefit others.  If people would pick up one piece of trash as they walk, our cities would be cleaner.  If people turned off lights when leaving a room, less energy would be used. 

While most people express general agreement that they would like to do things to benefit others, they often pass up opportunities to do things that would have this benefit.  Psychological research suggests a way to align people’s behavior with their broad stated goals.

Research by Peter Gollwitzer and his colleagues demonstrates that it is valuable for people to commit to specific behaviors rather than general ones.  In addition, research on the escalation of commitment suggests that getting people to take a small step toward a goal can get them to take larger steps later.  

If these techniques are combined, will that affect the behavior of real people who are not even aware they are in a study?  This issue was explored in a paper by Katie Baca-Motes, Amber Brown, Ayelet Gneezy, Elizabeth Keenan, and Leif Nelson in a 2012 paper in the Journal of Consumer Research.  

These researchers focused on energy saving behavior by hotel guests.  At check-in, guests at an Orange County, CA hotel (probably a Disney property from the description) were given either a general message about the importance of saving energy or a specific message asking them to hang their towels for re-use to save water and energy.  Guests were asked to commit to this goal by checking Yes on a sheet.  Overall, 98% of guests given the general goal checked Yes, and 83% of those guests given the specific goal checked Yes.  The behavior of all guests in each condition were tracked, regardless of whether they checked Yes to commit to the goal.

Some guests given each message were also given a “Friend of the Environment” pin to wear.  Guests at this hotel often wear pins (that is what makes me think it was a Disney property), so wearing a pin allows them to self-identify with the goal and to take a small step toward the goal.

There were also several control conditions in this study including some guests who were given no messages or pins—so they went through the regular check-in process—guests who were given a pin without any message, and guests who were told about the hotel’s commitment to save energy without having to make any commitments.

Staff trained to code data entered the hotel rooms on the guests’ first night at the hotel and counted the number of towels used and the number of used towels hung for re-use.  They also noted whether guests turned out the lights when leaving the hotel.

Overall, guests asked to make a specific commitment and who were given a pin were most likely to hang towels for re-use, and they hung a greater proportion of their used towels than guests in the other conditions.  These guests were also more likely to turn out the lights when leaving the room than guests in other conditions.  Interestingly, those guests given a Friend of the Environment pin who did not get any message were actually less likely to hang towels for re-use than those in other conditions.  

Guests who agreed to the general goal to save energy were at best slightly more likely than those who received no message at all.  Thus, the general goal had little impact on people’s behavior.  This finding is interesting, because people were somewhat more willing to commit to the general goal than to the specific one.

These data suggest that it is possible to have a real-world impact on people’s behavior.  To do so, it is important to get people to commit to a specific course of action and not a general one.  As I discuss in the book Smart Change, influencing the behavior of others requires specific plans and not general ones.  Only when people are thinking about specific behaviors will they be reminded of what they are supposed to do in the context in which they are supposed to do it.

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