Conspicuous conservation

We like to think we're smart, special snowflakes, but we're hardwired to follow the crowd.

Sometimes you meet people who just don’t care that much about the outdoors: teenagers, BP executives, Australians, accountants. Sure, there are plenty of advantages to converting them to greener ways of being, but how do you turn a non-believer to a charming shade of emerald?

Appealing to someone’s sense of altruism doesn’t really work. Some people value a lot of things more highly than doin’ good. (Some of these things include getting bargains and looking more important than everyone else.) It’s by appealing to these selfish impulses, rather than the health of loggerhead sea turtles or sea-level islands they’ll probably never visit, that you’ll get results.

So if you’re one of those kids with the light of a better future in your eyes and you’re having no luck convincing those head-in-the-sand morons that being green is so, so necessary, here’s what those morons are actually motivated by:

1. Showing off to other people. Why does the Prius have such a huge market share (51 percent)in the States? There are plenty of other hybrids out there, some of them cheaper. But the Prius has a distinct design – it’s recognisably a hybrid car, while other models look the same as their petrol- powered equivalents. Coincidence? Twin economists Steven and Alison Sexton think not! They dubbed this behaviour ‘conspicuous conservation’ after discovering people actually pay more to look the part.

2. Showing up other people. Sometimes there’s little to no value in switching an ingrained habit for a greener one. Saving power or water might shave a few dollars off the bill; recycling doesn’t directly benefit the householder. However, tell someone their neighbours are saving more than them and it’s a whole different story. Sacramento, California’s state capital, started sending utility bills which show how a household’s energy use compares to its neighbours; in a year, the district had saved enough energy to power 800 homes.

3. Saving a selected few people. Threats to the environment or the planet at large don’t resonate as acutely as threats to your family. Link a problem directly with someone’s kids, and – goal! It’s the difference between saying, “Let’s buy this more expensive cleaning product! It’s better for the ocean” and “Let’s buy this more expensive cleaning product! The other ones contain endocrine disruptors, which accumulate in your body and raise the chance you’ll end up having kids with undescended testes”.

As psychologists have figured out, all you have to do to change someone’s behaviour is feed them information about what others are doing. We like to think we’re smart, special snowflakes, but we’re hard-wired to follow the crowd. If you stand at a corner staring at the sky, soon someone else will glance up, too. That’s why “Everyone else in this city recycles” is a far more compelling message than “Hey! You should recycle, moron”.

Ultimately, teenagers, BP executives, Australians and accountants just want to be happy and liked and getting on better than other people, and it’s these impulses you’ll have to fit in with. Saving the world is just a side effect.