Environmentalism the influential way

Robert Cialdini\'s Influence: the Psychology of PersuasionI love reading pop psychology, especially those that gather together lots of different experiments and tie them together. The funny thing to me is that the authors usually aren’t psychologists: Malcom Gladwell (a journalist), Tim Harford (the Undercover Economist), and Dan Ariely (another economist) have all written some really interesting books about our behavior as humans. Today, I read a similar book by an actual psychologist that was just as good, Robert Cialdini’s Influence: the Psychology of Persuasion.

I’d been meaning to finish it for a while, but travel plans and my always tall stack of books to read got in the way. Usually, I just renew for another three weeks, but someone else wanted it, so I had to finish it today so that I could return it. Luckily, it’s well-suited to reading in pieces since each chapter focuses on a different method of influence, ranging from time pressure to likability to context.

The part that I think might interest all of you was in the section on consistency. Dr. Michael Pallak ran an experiment in Iowa to try and get people to conserve energy (natural gas in a winter experiment and electricity in a summer experiment). For the control group, he gave his subjects some general tips on energy conservation and asked them to conserve. As you might expect, these people showed no change in energy usage over the following three month period.

In addition to the conservation tips, Pallak told the other groups that at the end of the season, they’d have their names posted in the newspaper as “energy conservers.” Unlike the control group, these people reduced their energy usage by 12% (28% for the electricity) in the next month! The possibility of public recognition encouraged people to work to be more environmentally sound. That’s pretty cool.

But here’s where it gets weird. After one month, the researchers sent their subjects a letter telling them that for technical reasons, the newspaper wouldn’t be publishing their names after all. The month after that, participants reduced their energy usage by over 16% (42% for electricity) from their original usage! For some reason, people were even more willing to reduce energy AFTER their initial reason was removed.

According to the author of Influence, the explanation is that once people decided to reduce their energy, they came up with more reasons why it was a good idea. They might start thinking about how good it is for the environment or how much money they’re saving, even though those reasons weren’t enough without the newspaper incentive.

Then, when the researchers revealed that the newspaper wouldn’t be publishing their names, this removed the only external reason. All that was left were these reasons that they’d internalized. Now, there could be no question that they were doing it for the reward (small as it was).

I find this experiment, and really the whole chapter about consistency, very hopeful. If you can get someone else to take a small first step, or take that small step yourself, then you make it easier to take the second step. In an earlier chapter on reciprocity, the Cialdini mentions an experiment that showed that signing a civic-minded petition was enough to make people vastly more likely to host an ugly safe driving billboard, even when the petition wasn’t about safe driving!

Just making a semi-public commitment can be enough to get you (or others) to start thinking about yourself as the type of person who does those kind of things.

That’s why I think Maggie’s driving promise has value, even if she doesn’t figure out what to do with the money.

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1 Response so far »

  1. 1

    Dana said,

    June 4, 2008 @ 12:11 pm

    Although I was already interested in being more green, I noticed an interesting and related phenomenon last night. We’ve only been living in our new house for a week, but it’s already pretty much halved the amount of gas I’ve had to buy, even though we’ve still been driving to Raleigh more often than strictly necessary to finish up final moving details, etc. Anyway, once I noticed how much longer my current tank of gas had lasted, I immediately found myself trying to cut down on the places I would have to drive that are further than a few miles. (I can’t let this urge go too far, though, because it’ll mean I talk myself out of going to karate. That would be bad.) It’s an easy habit to get into.

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