Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Kickoff Time

Green is a beautiful color, and a very popular one these days. Entrepreneurs, celebrities, scientists, politicians, and regular everyday normal guys and gals like you and me are motivated to find eco-friendly ways to live well and save money. But it can be hard to keep up with the latest news, and as with all emerging trends, there is some confusion as to what is and isn't effective. We want to help the environment, and we want to save money doing it. But what's the best way? And, what can social psychology teach us about motivating others to be green?

For those of you who find yourselves thinking similar thoughts, welcome to Green Eggs and Sam! I’m Sam. I’m about to start the fifth year of my six-year Social Psychology PhD program at Arizona State University, and my dissertation will be on how to more effectively engage people in pro-environmentalism. It’s a field I’m just starting to explore, so I really welcome information and feedback! If you have ideas, share them! Suggestions – bring ‘em on! Let’s get a discussion going about how we can save money by going green, and how we can encourage others to do the same.

It's amazing what even little things can do - my roommate and I joined a CSA (community-supported agriculture) and we now help local farmers while saving about $40/month on vegetables. That is already a ginormous sum of money to graduate students, and there are so many more small changes we can all make to see serious savings.

There’s an apparently endless flow of green ideas these days. They range from the double-plus cool (Venice’s seaport plans to be powered completely by algae in 2011!) to the well-intentioned (100% compostable SunChips bags that sound like elephants waltzing on bubble-wrap every time you reach for a chip) to the “Whatever you’re on, I want some” (shower curtains with inflatable spikes that become fully stabby in about 4 minutes, prompting you to hurry). Some of these concepts can be easily integrated into our everyday lives, while others are guaranteed to be far more trouble than they’re worth (the Grass Wheel, a human-sized hamster wheel carpeted with grass so you can walk barefoot about town – forget about seeing oncoming traffic, by the way – springs to mind). Truly, all kinds of ideas.

But the exciting take-home message is that there are a lot of them. Green is the new black. We're only at the beginning of this wave, and it's smart to start riding it now, and let the savings - green and green - begin.

My second objective here is to review research on the social psychological principles that drive - or hinder - green behavior. As conservation becomes more popular (and lucrative), more researchers are wondering what makes people green. Why are some people more interested in going green than others? Why are some green behaviors more widely adopted than others? And why are some motivators more effective than others?

One finding in the persuasion literature that’s been replicated a thousand times is that people want to do what other people are doing. It’s called “social proof,” and the theory behind it is that when we’re in situations – particularly ambiguous ones – and need to decide which action is most appropriate, we look to other people for cues. Obviously, this can be applied to all kinds of social behavior and health interventions. Bob Cialdini, a social psychologist at ASU (recently retired), has done a number of studies on the effects of social proof on green behaviors.

In one recent study, Cialdini and two of his former graduate students, Noah Goldstein and Vlad Griskevicius, wanted to determine which type of messaging would be most useful in persuading hotel guests to reuse their bathroom towels. They found that pro-environment messaging that included descriptive norms (true information about what other guests were doing) was significantly more effective than pro-environment messaging alone. Cialdini has shown similar effects in the contexts of electricity usage, littering, and stealing petrified wood from national parks - informing people that others are acting environmentally conscious makes them want to do the same, and informing them that others are not, makes them not.

“JOIN YOUR FELLOW GUESTS IN HELPING TO SAVE THE ENVIRONMENT. Almost 75% of guests who are asked to participate in our new resource 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.”

“HELP SAVE THE ENVIRONMENT. You can show your respect for nature and help save the environment by reusing your towels during your stay.”

Despite the fact that this research goes way back, it appears the word has not spread. My friend Joe pointed out something amusingly ironic the other day. Bob Cialdini’s office is down the hall from my lab, and just a few doors away from us is the bathroom, where the ASU Health and Counseling Student Action Committee has posted stickers encouraging people to wash their hands. Their stickers read: “1/3 of Americans don’t wash their hands after using the restroom – GROSS – and only 1/3 do it right.” There it is – 50 feet away from the man who revolutionized the fields of persuasion and social interventions, ASU’s HCSAC is unwittingly motivating people to not wash their hands after using the bathroom. I don’t blame them for this. The findings are not necessarily intuitive, and social scientists need to bridge the gap between their academic research and the public. With Green Eggs and Sam, I aspire to do that.

Green is indeed a beautiful color. We’d all love to see more of it, both outside and in our wallets. Let’s get clever about making that happen.

Thanks for reading - hope to see you back here soon!


Venice algae: http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSTRE52N59E20090324 SunChips: http://sunchips.com/healthier_planet.shtml?s=content_compostable_packaging Spiky curtains: http://www.inhabitat.com/2009/04/25/my-shower-curtain-is-a-green-warrior/ Grass Wheel: http://www.inhabitat.com/2006/07/31/grass-wheel/

Samantha Neufeld is a Social Psychology PhD student at Arizona State University, studying sustainability.

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