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Author's profile photo Jonathan Becher

Positive Persuasion through Peer Pressure

What would get people to reuse their towels in hotel rooms?

The answer might surprise you, as it’s not saving the environment or saving money. People are more likely to reuse their hotel towels if they are told that everyone else is doing it.

This variant of the ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ effect seems hard to believe but has been confirmed in a variety of scientific studies.  For example, researchers asked nearly 1000 Californians to predict which of four messages would be most successful at persuading them to conserve energy:

  1. conserving energy helps the environment
  2. conserving energy protects future societies
  3. conserving energy saves you money;
  4. many of your neighbors are already conserving energy.

Not surprisingly, respondents rated the fourth option as least likely to influence their behavior. However, in practice, the researchers found this was actually the most effective in changing behavior; nearly twice as strong as a predictor of energy conservation as any other message.

Britain’s officials improved their tax collection rate 50% by following a similar approach.  Rather than sending threatening letters to people who didn’t pay their taxes on time, they appealed to their civic duty and pointed out the majority of their neighbors had already paid. By doing so, they collected £5.6 Billion ($8.6 B) more revenue than they had the previous year.

The desire to fit in is so innate that we do not recognize it influences our behavior. In a frequently-cited study, scientists showed they could influence NYC subway commuters to increase their donations to street musicians by 8 times, simply by having other people visibly donate. In other words, seeing their ‘neighbors’ donate caused commuters to donate more. Study participants who were interviewed afterwards failed to recognize they were influenced by others.  Instead, they claimed “I liked the song he was playing”; “I’m a generous person”; and “I felt sorry for the guy.”

Of course, marketers have long used peer pressure as a way of creating more interest in a product. Famously, infomercial writer Colleen Szot changed the traditional line of “Operators are standing by” to “If operators are busy, please call again”.  The suggestion you might miss out on a product that all of your neighbors were buying created a stronger call-to-action.

Given all of this research, it’s not surprising that hotels are turning to the same technique to get us to reuse towels and sheets. And it’s working.

By the way, 75% of your neighbors who read this blog tweeted it or emailed it to a friend.

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This blog was originally posted on Manage By Walking Around on April 21, 2013.

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      Author's profile photo Derek Klobucher
      Derek Klobucher

      It's very interesting that peer pressure helped tax collection efforts in the U.K., Jonathan. Are there any plans to attempt this approach in Greece?