Tools for Changing the World

Social psychology for social good

Do what the cool kids do (with their towels)

September 6th, 2010

The bathroomYou’re frustrated. You manage a hotel and you and your colleagues have been starting some great new programs to reduce its environmental impact. You’ve set up in-room recycling boxes, installed water-saving bathroom fixtures, and switched to environmentally neutral cleaning products.

It would be great if guests would help too, and you can think of an easy way for them to chip in: reuse their bathroom towels rather than using a new towel every day. You put up signs explaining that they can hang up their used towels if they’re willing to reuse them, or drop them on the floor if they’re not. You include a short blurb explaining how their participation would help save the environment.

Your guests don’t help. They drop their towels.

What went wrong?

More important, what can you do about it?

Robert Cialdini and his colleagues did an experiment to find the answer.

For several weeks, guests in a mid-priced hotel were presented with either of two signs in their bathrooms: one that reminded them that reusing their towels would help the environment, or one that informed them that the majority of other guests participated in the hotel’s towel reuse program.

It turned out that significantly more towels were reused by guests exposed to the second message. Learning that other people reused towels made hotel guests more likely to reuse them too.

The psychological principle at work here is called “social authority”… otherwise known as peer pressure. People are more likely to do something if they believe everyone else is already doing it. It was true in high school, and it’s true everywhere else.

After doing the first hotel experiment, Cialdini’s group tested ways to make their message even more effective. Various studies have suggested that we are more likely to copy the behaviours of people who are most like us, so the researchers tested several versions of their “most of our guests reuse their towels” message. Surprisingly, the message saying that most of the guests who had previously stayed in the same hotel room as the current guest inspired more towel reuse than either of the original messages or any of the new ones.

This sounds odd, but Cialdini’s team suggests that one factor making people more likely to conform to the norms around them is how closely someone’s current circumstances match the circumstances where the norm was measured. And that makes sense too. When in Rome, do as the Romans do.

This is only one example, but it demonstrates an important idea: people can be encouraged to do good things through peer pressure. Social authority isn’t just a tool for advertisers but a concept that anyone can apply when trying to implement positive changes.

There’s a great deal more that can be written about social authority, but I’m fascinated by its potential uses. Parents know that pointing out how much another child is enjoying an activity can occasionally convince their reluctant child to try it. If everyone you know quits smoking, you’re much more likely to quit. So why not use the principle for good?

If you want your fellow citizens to vote, remind them of how many people – ideally people in their community – voted in the last election or have pledged to vote in this one. If you’re trying to get people to use clotheslines instead of dryers, show them a photo of all the clotheslines already in use in their neighbourhood.

It was reading about the towel experiment in several books and articles that eventually led me to write this blog, so I’m very grateful to Dr. Cialdini. Many of his other studies have also tested ways to increase ecologically conscious behaviour. I’d love to hear any further suggestions for using this principle in the comments.

2 comments on 'Do what the cool kids do (with their towels)'

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  1. Andy

    7 May 11 at 6:57 am

    Interesting experiment. I wonder what they’d do if it were football towels.


    Carol Reply:

    I expect it would depend on what they thought of the team.


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