The psychology of inducing environmental consumerism is based not so much on copycats as hitchhikers
By Rachel Talshir

Three weeks ago, I described the centrality of social pressure in turning people into green consumers. I illustrated the idea with the movement from disposable bags to sustainable baskets and how a major role is played by the desire to be like everyone else.

However, the disposable bags are unique in that their use takes place in the public domain and so it is easier to have an impact on their use through social pressure. A more difficult question is, how does social pressure have an influence on that considerable chunk of behavior that needs urgently to be changed to green – of which saving water and electricity are obvious examples – but which take place far from the eyes of the masses that have an influence?

Most of the ways in which it is possible to have an influence on these types of behavior with the aim of changing them are defined in advance as problematic from the ethical point of view, in the best case, and as blatant trampling of individual rights in most cases. Thus, for example, placing lights that flash at the entrance to houses when water or electricity is wasted is a simple solution that is necessary, but is problematic from the ethical point of view and therefore not practicable. The sticking of a “smiley” every month on the doors of houses where people save is also problematic to the same extent.

In his book “Fostering Sustainable Behavior,” the psychologist Doug McKenzie-Mohr describes a study that was carried out in the showers of a college gym in which an attempt was made to infiltrate those private places. As part of the research, a sign was put up permanently in the showers instructing people to save water by closing the faucet during soaping. Only six percent of them did so. When the researchers put someone there who did do that, 49 percent copied him. When there were two people who were placed there to do so, 67 percent copied them. This happened even though the two people refrained from discussing their acts with the other people showering and did not even create eye contact with them.

The researchers explained the improvement by the fact that the great advantage of public pressure is that, unlike rational explanations or detailed information, it acts on the unconscious mind. Moreover, even though people prefer to say even to themselves that they are more influenced by a detailed agenda or by monetary compensation, in fact, the ability of the unconscious mind to change habits is much greater than that of the conscious.

Still, most non-green behaviors take place at home and therefore it is difficult to employ public pressure without destroying privacy. One of the less problematic solutions from this point of view lies in the creation of a virtual community in which every consumer is invited to enter a site and see what his relative position is with regard to saving. He can compare his consumption of water and electricity with those of similar homes and understand to what extent he applies the values of the green trend.

Experiments of this kind that have been carried out in different parts of the world have made it clear that the group that got feedback, where the individual’s place was compared to others, showed a positive and continuous trend of saving electricity compared with groups that were renumerated for their savings through reductions.

The main problem with programs of this kind is that they depend on the good will of the participants. It is hard to come up with a way that makes it possible, without harming individual rights, to cause someone, especially someone who is not at all interested in the green trend, to take part and go to a site where his conduct is estimated in comparison with that of his neighbors.

Another creative solution that was tried in several places is changing consumption habits by competitions between groups. Thus, for example, when declaring a savings competition, with water or electricity, between different neighborhoods, streets or buildings, the pressure to get first place has an effect also on those who waste – but without them undergoing any kind of public hazing or shaming.

One of the biggest problems in the ability to have an influence on the individual to change his behavior to green stems from what is usually called “the hitchhiker effect.” This effect has been discussed in many contexts of ecological economics and is relevant both to conduct in the public domain and in the private domain. The hitchhiker is that citizen who has become convinced that one must stop using disposable bags and must save water and electricity, but assumes that if everyone changes and becomes green, he can continue as he is and waste as much as his heart desires.