Making the Joneses Work for You

Peer pressure, cattle herd mentality, keeping up with the Joneses… call it what you like, researchers are finding that it works.

Rather than statements that scare people into Earth-friendly behaviours, one scientist says a better approach is to play to a person’s herding tendencies. “One spur to get people to act is to honestly tell them that’s what the majority of people are doing in this situation,” said Robert Cialdini, a psychologist at Arizona State University.

Crowd followers

Cialdini and his colleagues surveyed nearly 2,500 California residents and found they offered three main motivational reasons for household conservation: 1) protecting the environment, 2) being responsible citizens and 3) saving on energy costs. Although they gave the lowest rating to “because neighbours are doing it,” this factor actually showed the greatest relationship to reported energy conservation. “They were fooling themselves. What their neighbours were doing turned out to be a powerful message,” Cialdini said.

He found more support for this cattle-herd theory in a study of bath towel reuse in upscale hotel rooms in the Phoenix area. Typically, cards in rooms request the next-day reuse of bath towels, stating that compliance will help save the environment and precious resources. The card never states that the majority of guests reuse their towels. They placed one of four cards in each guestroom:

  • “Help Save the Environment,” with information stressing respect for nature.
  • “Help Save Resources for Future Generations,” with information stressing the importance of energy-saving.
  • “Partner With Us to Help Save the Environment,” with information urging guests to help the hotel preserve the environment.
  • “Join Your Fellow Citizens In Helping to Save the Environment,” stating the majority of hotel guests reuse their towels.

Compared with the first three messages, the final one asking guests to join others increased towel reuse by about 28 percent.

Following the crowd the wrong way

Following your peers often steers you right. “If all of your friends are raving about the same restaurant or the same movie or the same piece of software, chances are that you can make that choice and benefit without having to do the research,” Cialdini told LiveScience.

But it’s not fool-proof. The scientists erected signs in the Petrified Forest in Arizona. One sign showed a scene of three wood-taking thieves with text that urged visitors not to take any wood. After passing this sign, park-goers were three times more likely to steal than the average visitor. “The subtext message is that everybody is doing it, which legitimizes the behaviour,” Cialdini said. A second sign showed a lone thief with the same anti-thieving text. Passers-by were half as likely to steal as those who didn’t read that sign.

If you are designing public education programs, keep the “everybody’s doing it” concept in mind and try to work it into your messages.


[Source: Adapted from: Following the Crowd to Save the Planet by Jeanna Bryner, LiveScience Staff Writer,, in May 2007 WasteWatch ]