We’re all sheep

Sheep flockThe Wall Street Journal ran an article about how to get people to adopt green behaviors. The headline said, “It isn’t financial incentives. It isn’t more information. It’s guilt.”

The article later called it peer pressure, which I think is more accurate than guilt. We don’t know which emotions are at play when people want to be like others. Often they’re not even aware of others’ influence. They may even deny others’ influence.

They just do something because other people are doing it. They’re acting like sheep.  Read more>

The article cited several studies showing how comparing people’s behavior to others changed their behavior. Some examples:

  • Community norms got more people to reduce home energy use than telling people they could save money or reduce greenhouse gases.
  • People who had to ask for plastic bags in front of other customers in the store were reluctant to do so, reducing the number of bags supplied by 16 to 19 percent.
  • Signs in hotel rooms saying that others who stayed there reused their towels resulted in an increase in towel reuse of 25 percent or more.

I read elsewhere about a study that found that people are eight times more likely to give money to a street musician if they see someone else do it. When asked why they gave money, however, they never gave that as a reason. They were following others’ lead without being aware.

My friend Josh has a similar story. When he was younger, he and a friend got temporary jobs giving away free samples of bottled water on a busy Seattle shopping street. The problem was, he couldn’t get anyone to take the bottles he was giving away. People would just walk by and ignore him.

Every now and then, someone would accept one of the bottles he offered. Then several people behind that person would take bottles too.

Josh hit on an idea. He enlisted his friend and coworker to walk up to him and take a bottle of water. Sure enough, people would line up after him to get a bottle too. It worked like a charm.


Ed. note: In honor of my 10th anniversary in business, I am updating and reposting some of the posts from my (now-defunct) Sage Enviro blog to make it easier for people to find them.