A Simple Message Saves Water
Small acts like reusing a hotel towel can save thousands of gallons of water, detergent, and oil every day. But most hotel guests use their towels only once before having it washed.
A simple message that appeals to our desire to fit in with people like us - that is, to follow local social norms - moves hotel guests to reuse their towels.
Social psychologist Noah Goldstein and his colleagues randomly assigned hotel rooms to display one of three placards in the bathroom:
The standard placard read:
HELP SAVE THE ENVIRONMENT. You can show your respect for nature and help save the environment by reusing your towels during your stay.
The general norms placard read:
JOIN YOUR FELLOW GUESTS IN HELPING TO SAVE THE ENVIRONMENT. In a study conducted in fall 2003, 75% of guests participated in our new resource savings program by using their towels more than once. You can join your fellow guests in this program to help save the environment by reusing your towels during your stay.
The so-called provincial norms placard was just like the general norms note, except its second sentence read:
In a study conducted in fall 2003, 73% of guests who stayed in this room, # ______ [researchers wrote in the room number] participated in our new resource savings program.
In other words, the provincial norms placard conveyed how people who stayed in this very room have acted in the past.
The researchers found that the norms moved more guests to reuse their towels than did the standard placards (37%), with the provincial norms message proving most effective (50%).
Why This Works
Although we humans certainly have our moments of defying the rules and pursuing our unique druthers (and some interventions exploit these moments), we spend much of our time trying to follow our communities' unwritten rules. "When in Rome," as the saying goes, we want to do as the Romans do. This desire presents an excellent opportunity to change people's behavior, by giving people directions on how others like them acted in this situation in the past.
When This Works Best
This intervention will work best when people are not certain how others normally behave in this situation.
The Original Study
Goldstein, N. J., Cialdini, R. B., & Griskevicius, V. (2008). A room with a viewpoint: Using social norms to motivate environmental conservation in hotels. Journal of Consumer Research, 35(3), 472-482.
In The Press
Schultz, W. P., Khazian, A. M., & Zaleski, A. C. (2008). Using normative social influence to promote conservation among hotel guests. Social Influence, 3(1), 4-23.
Ferraro, P. J., Jose Miranda, J., & Price, M. K. (2011). The persistence of treatment effects with norm-based policy instruments: evidence from a randomized environmental policy experiment. American Economic Review, 101(3), 318.