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ASU researcher finds belief about neighbor's conservation is stealthily influential

If everyone jumped off a bridge, would you? Probably not, but according to a study by Arizona State University researchers, peer influence plays a greater role in people's behavior than is generally acknowledged.

The study, which is being presented by ASU Regents' Professor of Psychology Robert Cialdini on Feb. 18 at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Francisco, suggests that peer influence is an under-recognized factor in energy conservation. Cialdini studies persuasion and influence in the decision making process.

Cialdini and his team conducted a telephone survey of more than 2,000 California residents asking them to identify major reasons why they try to conserve energy. The residents responded with three overwhelming reasons: protecting the environment, being responsible citizens and saving on energy costs. The lowest-rated reason was because their neighbors were doing it.

"However, what we found was that the lowest-rated factor—the belief that their neighbors were engaging in energy conservation—had the highest correlation with reported energy conservation on the part of the people surveyed," Cialdini said. "They were fooling themselves. What their neighbors were doing turned out to be a powerful message."

Cialdini and his colleagues further strengthened their claim when they studied the responses of hotel guests to a variety of techniques to get them to reuse towels.

Researchers placed cards in hotel rooms encouraging residents to reuse their towels, each displaying one of three reasons: respect for the environment, the sake of future generations, and a message stating that the majority of guests reused their towels. The third message generated 30 percent more towel reuse than the other two messages.

Cialdini said the results represent an easy, effective way to increase energy conservation simply by publicizing conservation efforts that otherwise would go unnoticed.

"Peer influence is a powerful and fundamental rule of adult social influence, but it's an under-recognized rule," Cialdini said.

Skip Derra | EurekAlert!
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