Social Pressure for a Green Good (and Perhaps Red, White, and Blue Too)

According to this month’s Scientific American, academics at UCLA have found that peer pressure does a better job of motivating people to conserve resources than do standard environmental messages. In an experiment, researchers presented two different signs to hotel guests: one had a typical conservation message and the other told guests that most of their fellow travelers had reused towels. The study found that the social-norm message worked 25% better than the generic environmental message in convincing guests to reuse their towels. It also found that telling guests that those who had stayed in same room had reused their towels worked even better than saying that other guests at the same hotel had done so.

Crowd motivation seemed at work yesterday as well. According to The New York Times, recent studies attribute our drive to cast a ballot to the desire to see ourselves as the kind of people who vote. In other words, we vote to maintain our moral self-image. This desire seemingly operates internally and externally. We vote because we want to feel good ourselves and because we want others to feel good about us too. Hence, so many kept on their “I Voted!” stickers throughout the day. As the UCLA study suggests, those “I Voted!” stickers likely motivated others to head to the polls, especially if they were worn by colleagues and friends. Although the heavy turn out was no doubt due to the historic nature of the race–an African American candidate (now President elect)–and the unbelievably high stakes given our economy and the war, it also created a contagion of the greatest kind, one that was red, white, and blue.

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2 Responses

  1. A.J. Sutter says:

    As for towels, were the signs used in the UCLA test true, or were they lying, for sake of the experiment? I, for one, might feel a bit defiant if I had reason to suspect that the sign was manipulative rather than veracious. I am very wary of this “nudge” fad, and am sad to see that some of its strongest proponents are political liberals (I’m talking about, say, Cass Sunstein, not you personally). The Thaler and Sunstein book, in particular, has at best very attenuated notions of democracy.

    The “I Voted!” sticker is another story, and here I agree with you. Here the message is more likely to be sincere, because you can get the sticker only if you do vote (or at least ask for and receive an absentee ballot). Of course, stickers didn’t help voter turnout crack 55% or so during the 1972-2004 presidential elections, or break 40% in any but one of the off-year Federal election cycles during that era. Nonetheless, I wore mine as I went through my day here in Tokyo. Japan both has high voter apathy and lacks anything like “I voted” stickers; they might really be a beneficial innovation here.

  2. Danielle Citron says:

    A.J., Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments. Danielle