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Conservation Psychology: Think You’re Green? Think Again!

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Happy Earth Day, everyone!
In honor of the day, here’s a modified re-post of piece I wrote recently for LAist.


Figure 1: Photo by poloroid-girl via LAist Featured Photos on Flickr.

The great philosopher Kermit the Frog once said, “It’s not that easy being green.” Maybe he was on to something.
ResearchBlogging.orgYou can’t walk three steps down an aisle in any store without running into eco-friendly or “green” products. You probably have many of these products. Is your refrigerator or dishwasher Energy-star compliant? Do you have a paperless Kindle? Maybe bamboo guest towels in the bathroom? A Prius?
Why do you have all of these products? Is it because you care about the environment? It is? Really? Are you sure? It’s okay if you say “no.” I won’t tell.

Vladas Griskevicius, assistant professor of marketing at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, and colleagues, think that something else might be going on. “People want to be seen as being altruistic. Nothing communicates that better than by buying green products that often cost more and are of lower quality but benefit the environment for everyone.” In other words, green products are considered a status symbol; that they are environmentally friendly is an accidental side-effect.
In a series of experiments, the research team found that when given the choice between choosing two equally priced items, one of which was more luxurious (for example, an upscale 2009 Honda Civic with all of the available options) and one which was more environmentally friendly (for example, the base model of the 2009 Honda Civic Hybrid), if someone did not have an audience (such as shopping online), they were more likely to forgo environmentalism and opt for the luxury item. However, when asked to make decisions in front of an audience, people were significantly more likely to choose the green item.
So why don’t more people ride the bus to work instead of driving? Because the motivation comes from status, not from environmentalism. People who choose to ride public transportation are often perceived as having lower social status than those who drive their own cars.
Griskevicius said, “When you publicly display your environmentally friendly nature, you send the signal that you care.” And it is likely that manufacturers and retailers have noticed this trend. Perhaps that explains the price tag of the Prius which – all things considered – is inferior: a compact sedan with a small trunk, standard cloth seats, excellent gas mileage, and a sluggish engine.
Entrepreneurs, take note: if you want a piece of the “green” marketshare, develop products that must be used in public. In the privacy of their own homes, people still prefer luxury.
And now, a message from our sponsors:

Griskevicius, V., Tybur, J., & Van den Bergh, B. (2010). Going green to be seen: Status, reputation, and conspicuous conservation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 98 (3), 392-404. DOI: 10.1037/a0017346
Some quotations from this ScienceDaily press release.

Jason G. Goldman About the Author: Dr. Jason G. Goldman received his Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology at the University of Southern California, where he studied the evolutionary and developmental origins of the mind in humans and non-human animals. Jason is also an editor at ScienceSeeker and Editor of Open Lab 2010. He lives in Los Angeles, CA. Follow on . Follow on Twitter @jgold85.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. James Davis 8:42 am 04/22/2010

    Greenwashing concerns aside, the fact that green products are becoming status symbols gives me hope. People can’t always be trusted to do the right thing, but they /can/ be trusted to try and look good.

    Link to this
  2. 2. lynxreign 8:49 am 04/22/2010

    Perhaps that explains the price tag of the Prius which – all things considered – is inferior: a compact sedan with a small trunk, standard cloth seats, excellent gas mileage, and a sluggish engine.
    Perhaps the author should have acquainted himself with the Prius before writing. It is a mid-sized sedan, has a spacious trunk and the engine is not sluggish. It does get excellent mileage. Over the 4 years I’ve had mine, I get around 44 MPG.
    I addition, the Prius can be upgraded to leather seats, I prefer cloth. Leather is sticky in summer.
    The Prius also has a ton of cool tech, backup camera, bluetooth for phone, mileage monitor, pushbutton start, key sensors (don’t ever need to take the key out of your pocket, can’t lock your key in the car), iPod dock, 6-CD in-dash 6 speaker stereo, etc…
    And when I have a job where it makes sense, I take the bus or train. When I don’t it is because using public transportation adds over 100% to the time of the commute or is just unavailable. Public transportation is slower and can be a pain, especially when it breaks down. We need a much higher investment in pulic transportation.
    The focus on “status”, while certainly one factor, is overemphasised here and isn’t well considered.

    Link to this
  3. 3. Lynxreign 8:52 am 04/22/2010

    My mistake, the Prius is also no longer a sedan and hasn’t been one for quite awhile, it is a hatchback. Perhaps this accounts for the author’s errors. He’s focusing on a car that is at least 5 years old and is no longer sold.

    Link to this
  4. 4. Thee Desecrator 5:59 pm 04/22/2010

    I am glad there is actual research on this, just wish I were more aware of this a couple years ago when I had an “environmentalist” co-worker who bought a Ford Focus to “protect the environment.” She would criticize me for buying my 2006 Monte Carlo SS because it had a V-8 (although only runs on 4 cylinders when not accelerating). I only drove 4 miles/day to work while she drove 60+ and took plenty of road trips. I’ve only taken 2 road trips and took me more than two years to rack up 10,000 miles.
    If I was aware of this research, or even thought of this I could’ve had some nice ammunition for those frequent “you’re destroying the environment” arguments.

    Link to this
  5. 5. Ian Kemmish 10:42 am 04/23/2010

    The obvious counter to this is that for most of the past forty years, people who consume more frugally have done so against a backdrop of conspicuous consumption, and usually in the face of general scorn. If they made the purchasing decision in front of strangers, then the strong probability is that the strangers weren’t impressed at all.

    Link to this
  6. 6. Lora 7:49 am 04/24/2010

    “Nothing communicates that better than by buying green products that often cost more and are of lower quality but benefit the environment for everyone.”
    I strongly suspect that there is a very big difference between luxury goods (i.e. things you do not, technically, need–appliances, a new car, a Kindle) vs. less-elastic goods like food in this regard. I personally started growing my own food because it cost a fraction of the store prices and was higher-quality than anything I could get in Whole Foods. I am far from the only weirdo who does so; see Slow Food.
    I’m also thinking about the fashion for knitting and sewing amongst the young people these days. Spouse’s secretary made her own wedding dress and all the frippery that went with it on a very low budget, and it was at least as high quality as anything you’d get in the stores. I am told that this is the cool new thing.

    Link to this

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