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Leading from Good to Great – What causes people to be keen to go green?

Below is an article from Steve Martin from Influence At Work, UK which I would like to share with:

This month I want to persuade you to buy a car. It’s a compact sedan with a small trunk, good gas economy although the performance is nothing to write home about. Not a great start I hear you cry. And it gets worse. I am going to charge you several thousand dollars more for this car than other highly efficient and better equipped cars on the market.

The car I want to persuade you to buy is the Toyota Prius, arguably one of the most successful cars of recent times. Many have put its success down to people being incentivised to purchase one by way of the extra tax credits available to them. However after tax incentives were removed in 2006 rather than falling off a cliff, Prius sales actually rose by over 68%.

So what is persuading purchasers to be so keen to go green and can we apply the same lessons to our influence attempts?

In a recent study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vladas Griskevicius from the University of Minnesota along with Joshua Taylor and Bram Van den Bergh from the University of New Mexico and the Rotterdam School of Management claim that making environmentally conscientious purchase decisions can be seen as altruistic and as a result publically enhance people’s status. As a result people can be persuaded to pay more money for a product that is green, not necessarily because it is any better than a comparable non-green product, but just because it is green.

To test their ideas a series of studies were set up where participants were asked to consider the purchase of three everyday items; a car, a dishwasher and a common household cleaner, each of which was available for purchase as either an environmentally conscientious green option or as a non-green option. In effect there were 6 products in total – 3 green and 3 non-green.

Each of the product types were equally priced, however it was clear that the features of the non-green products were considerably more luxurious than the more environmentally friendly ones. To give an example, the dishwashers had the same price ($1,100) but the luxurious non-green option featured a revolutionary drying system and came in a choice of finishes whereas the ‘green’ dishwasher used a water recycling system and was made with recycled parts.

Before they were asked to consider which of the products they would most likely choose, half the study participants were primed to think about ‘feelings of status’ by reading a story describing how they had landed a great new job and how very impressed they were by all the trappings of the office’s high-status features like the upscale lobby and the designer furniture. The other half read a control story that didn’t elicit any feelings of status.

When it came to choosing between the green and non-green options, getting people to consider their status had a significant influence over their choices. In the case of the car, 54% of participants who were primed to think about status chose the more environmentally conscientious green option compared to just 37% in the control condition. Similar results were recorded for the dishwasher and the household cleaner products. But why?

The study authors suggest that there are two potential influences at play here. The first is ‘costly signaling theory’ which is the idea that people often show off by drawing attention to excess energy and other resources they possess – much like a peacock showing off to attract a mate. The second is ‘competitive altruism’ which is the idea that public displays of selflessness can build desirable reputations – think Bill Gates for example. To test these ideas a couple of further studies were conducted.

The first of these found that people in the ‘status’ group were less likely to choose green option products when no one knew about their purchases – for example if they made a purchase online.

A follow up study found that people in the status group preferred green option products less if they cost less to purchase. Thinking about their status and position persuaded people to make a less than optimal economic decision by choosing a more expensive but green option. It was like they were saying “look at me, I am a friend of the environment and I can afford to be a friend of the environment”.

Perhaps this is the reason why, contrary to the belief that Toyota Prius sales would plummet after the tax incentive was removed, they actually continued to rise. It might also explain why so many Hollywood stars were persuaded to ditch their Ferraris and drive to the film set in their new Prius instead.

For those of us who would like to persuade more clients and customers to choose the green option there is some potentially good news. You don’t necessarily have to compromise on price, providing you think of ethical ways to publicly recognise your customers as environmentally conscious individuals.

This research should also prove insightful to those in the public sector who have the challenge of influencing whole communities to behave in more environmentally conscientious ways. Ensuring that there are mechanisms in place to publicly elevate the status of those who are acting in desirable ways can be very effective – just as effective as providing financial incentives.

And for those of you who are yet to be persuaded to buy that Prius from me. Forget about the extra money it will cost. Instead imagine how wonderful your neighbors will think you are when you drive it to the store at 5mph so that everyone can see it really is you.

And remember not to park it in the garage!

Source: Griskevicius, V., Tybur, J.M., Van den Bergh, B. (2010) Going green to be seen: Status, reputation and conspicuous conservation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology Vol. 98(3),392-404

Watch out for the annoucement for the next Principles of Workshop in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

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