Do people do things because they’re the right thing to do?
Unfortunately, it seems much of the time we don’t. We’re far more likely to be swayed by what those around us are doing, a point demonstrated both by history and experiment (see the Stanford prison experiment).
The Atlantic (Greening With Envy) describes how this sometimes dismal aspect of human beings might be leveraged to create change:
A few years ago, Cialdini, a professor at Arizona State University, conducted a study in several Phoenix hotels comparing the effects of those ubiquitous hotel-bathroom placards that ask guests to reuse towels, testing four slightly different messages. The first sign had the traditional message, asking guests to “do it for the environment.” The second asked guests to “cooperate with the hotel” and “be our partner in this cause” (12 percent less effective than the first). The third stated that the majority of guests in the hotel reused towels at least once during their stay (18 percent more effective). The last message was even more specific: it said that the majority of guests “in this room” had reused their towels. It produced a 33 percent increase in response behavior over the traditional message
According to the Atlantic article, Cialdini then set out to use of this insight to encourage people to reduce their electricity consumption:
Now Cialdini is applying that concept to energy consumption, with promising results. Positive Energy, a company that has drawn on his work (he’s the chief scientist), has created software that assesses energy usage by neighborhood. Results are sent to consumers on behalf of their local utility, praising you with a row of smiley faces (you’ve used 58 percent less electricity than your neighbors this month!) or damning you with none (you used 39 percent more electricity than your neighbors in the past 12 months, and it cost you $741 extra).