If you were to walk down the street and ask five random strangers whether they believe efforts toward energy efficiency are a positive thing, chances are good they will all agree. If you ask those same five people whether it’s important to take care of our environment, they’ll likely agree again. But if you were to follow those individuals home, and track their energy usage over the course of several months, their actions may paint a very different perspective.
So why is it that people don’t practice what they preach? If people know that they should reduce their energy use and take care of the environment, why aren’t they doing it?
Part of it can simply be explained by the fact that human nature is unpredictable. We set a goal one day, and abandon it the next. We have good intentions, but other factors get in the way of following through. Some of these inhibiting variables include the amount of time, effort, or financial cost of being more environmentally friendly. People are often short-sighted when making financial choices, focusing on the short-term rather than the long-term savings.
A study conducted in 2007 by the National Marketing Institute found that nearly 60 percent of American consumers admitted that “while they care for the environment, they purchase items based on price.” The study also found that less than one-third of consumers were willing to pay 20 percent more for green products.
While this news may be discouraging at first, it can also be considered positive when environmental campaign messages are specially framed to highlight monetary benefits. For example, it is clear that conserving energy or water at home can lead to lower monthly utility bills. These short-term savings can add up dramatically over the long-term, with positive environmental impact. Yet, not everyone thinks consciously about those savings on a daily basis. By developing an environmental campaign that emphasizes the personal financial benefits of a greener lifestyle, consumers are more likely to respond favorably. A little repetition can go a long way, as long as it doesn’t feel like nagging.
While the energy efficiency market has implemented a variety of cost-saving incentives highlighting the economic rationality of reducing, reusing, and recycling at home, other factors may be even more persuasive. One of these commonly overlooked factors is the impact of social norms on individual behavior. Descriptive social norms influence perception based on observations of others’ typical behaviors with the expectation of following the status quo. A study titled “The Constructive, Destructive, and Reconstructive Power of Social Norms,” conducted by researchers at the California State University Department of Psychology found that mailing energy reports comparing household energy use with neighbors in similar homes resulted in a behavioral shift toward the stated descriptive social norm. Households using more energy than their neighbors reduced their usage to match the average, while low energy use households actually showed a slight increase in energy use to match the social norm. This negative phenomenon, known as the boomerang effect, is well-documented in academic literature.
Fortunately, the energy consumption study also demonstrated that the boomerang effect can be counteracted by the use of injunctive norms that emphasize low energy users not as outliers, but as leaders in their neighborhoods. Injunctive norms influence perception by appealing to morals regarding what one should or shouldn’t do. When the energy reports also included injunctive norms, such as a smiley face for lower energy usage or a frowning face for higher energy usage, people displaying positive behaviors were less likely to change to match social norms. Households using more energy reduced their consumption, while households using less energy than the average continued to do so.
What can we conclude from California State University’s study? For starters, philosopher Eric Hoffer was right in stating that “when people are free to do as they please, they usually imitate each other.” However, pairing social norms with injunctive norms can be even more powerful than descriptive social norms alone. Using descriptive norms without injunctive norms can result in the undesirable boomerang effect, while using only injunctive norms can sound too preachy. In conclusion, researching relevant descriptive social norms in a given area or population, combined with appropriate injunctive norms, can be powerful tools to develop successful environmental campaigns.
It comes as no surprise that individuals’ actions are usually consistent with how they want others to view them, and lately “being green” has been a noteworthy trend to follow. While environmentalism is not isolated to the wealthy, a shift toward eco-friendly products and lifestyles has been growing in popularity with the wealthy and elite public figures, as noted by Kristen Andersson, an analyst at TrueCar.com. “For affluent buyers who live in places where environmental concerns reign supreme, the Toyota Prius is the ultimate status symbol in eco-luxury,” said Andersson. While not everyone can afford to go out and buy a Toyota Prius, adopting other environmentally friendly products and habits can result in individual satisfaction when the motivating desire is perceived status.
The complexity of human behavior makes it difficult to gauge exactly what messages will be successful in creating environmental campaigns. What research we do have suggests that highlighting the long-term economic incentives, positive descriptive norms in conjunction with injunctive norms, and portraying environmentalism as an intelligent movement embraced by admired individuals can have noticeable effects on campaign success. Having a solid understanding of the underlying factors that motivate individual behaviors can only help to create more appealing campaigns, enhance existing programs, and tailor the spread of environmental knowledge to the relevant interests of consumers in the future.
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