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Revealing Hypocrisy Boosts Water Conservation

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Dried and cracked soil


Even during droughts, many Americans guzzle water. In dry California, for example, some cities use more than four times as many gallons of water than do their neighbors. 


Discovering they are hypocrites prompts people to turn off the tap.


Chris Ann Dickerson, an energy efficiency and water conservation expert, and her colleagues sent a female researcher to a university pool. As female swimmers approached the shower, the researcher invited them to help with a water conservation project. Willing participants were then randomly assigned to one of four conditions.

In the hypocrisy condition, the researcher made participants aware that their behaviors did not always match their values by first asking questions such as, “When showering, do you ALWAYS turn off the water while soaping up or shampooing?”

She then asked each participant to display her support for water conservation by printing her name in thick black marker on a public flyer that would be posted around campus. The flyer read: 

“Please conserve water. Take shorter showers. Turn showers off while soaping up. IF I CAN DO IT, SO CAN YOU!”

In the waste awareness condition, the experimenter asked participants the questions about wasting water, but did not invite them to sign the flyer.

In the public commitment condition, participants signed the flyer, but did not answer the questions.

Finally, in the control condition, participants simply saw a sign outside of the shower room that read: “Take Shorter Showers. Turn the Water Off While Soaping Up.”

After each of these four experimental manipulations, the participants hit the showers. Unbeknownst to them, however, a second researcher timed how long they spent bathing.

The researchers discovered that participants in the hypocrisy condition spent an average of only 3 minutes, 41 seconds showering, compared to 5 minutes in the control condition. Participants in the public commitment and awareness conditions averaged 4-minute showers. 


Why This Works

We want to think of ourselves as people who practice what we preach. Being shown our own hypocrisy lights a fire under us to change our ways and do as we say.

When This Works Best

All participants in the study indicated that they were in favor of water conservation. This intervention only works when people care about the topic in question and hence are bothered by not living up to their own values.  

Original Study

Dickerson, C. A., Thibodeau, R., Aronson, E., & Miller, D. (1992). Using cognitive dissonance to encourage water conservation. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 22(11), 841-854.

In the Media

Psychology Today

See Also

Kantola, S. J., Syme, G. J., & Campbell, N. A. (1984). Cognitive dissonance and energy conservation. Journal of Applied Psychology, 69, 416–421.

Aronson, E., Fried, C., & Stone, J. (1991). Overcoming denial and increasing the intention to use condoms through the induction of hypocrisy. American Journal of Public Health, 81(12), 1636-1638.

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