Each year, thousands of dollars are spent on advertising campaigns focused on educating consumers on the importance and value of conserving and recycling. But how impactful are these educational campaigns? 

According to Psychology Professor Wesley Schultz, for the most part, these campaigns just aren’t that effective. 

“From my perspective, many of these campaigns go about it all wrong,” says Schultz. “Increasing awareness won’t result in increased conservation. Most programs are based on the assumption that people don’t conserve because they don’t know that they should or they don’t know how to do it. The problem isn’t the lack of knowledge, but rather a lack of sufficient motivation to act.” 

Schultz points out that if we want people to conserve, we want them to engage in different behavior. And this being the case, a little psychology can go a long way. There is strong evidence from a number of areas of psychological research that a person’s decision to engage in a behavior is strongly influenced by what other people do. According to Schultz, to make that change in behavior, we need to look for approaches and messaging that frame conservation as the social norm. 

“If conservation means deviating from the group, few people will want to do it. No one wants to be a sucker – to sacrifice when other people aren’t. Why should I conserve energy, recycle, or reduce my water use if no one else does?” asks Schultz. “In this regard, conservation messages need to emphasize that other people are conserving, and other people value conservation.” 

A study that Schultz conducted illustrates that point. In a recent study, hotel guests were presented with varying messages regarding towel usage and conservation. The message that had the greatest impact stated, “Nearly 75 percent of hotel guests choose to reuse their towels each day. To support our guests who want to conserve, this hotel has initiated a conservation program.” 

Schultz found that guests who saw this message increased their towel reuse by nearly 30 percent compared with guests who saw a traditional appeal to protect the environment. “Hearing that other people conserve is important.” 

In another study focusing on energy consumption, San Marcos residents were provided with customized feedback to help positively impact conservation efforts. 

“Energy conservation is difficult. The unit measure is strange, and people don’t know how much energy they use each day. The feedback we do receive is irregular and it’s difficult to connect our actions to the feedback.” 

Schultz and his team of CSUSM students provided San Marcos residents with tailored feedback that compared their usage with the average level of electricity used by households in their neighborhood. For those households that used more electricity than average, the team found a significant reduction in consumption. In short, these households conserved. But for those households that used less than the norm, the team found a significant increase in consumption; in short, a boomerang effect. Fortunately, the team also showed that adding a smiley face to low consuming households negated the increase, and sustained their low level of consumption. 

Tailored feedback and social comparison are just two of the ways that Schultz believes social psychology can play a role in promoting sustainable patterns of behavior.

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“Hearing that other people conserve is important.”

–CSUSM Psychology Professor Wesley Schultz