A Room With a Viewpoint, or, Who “We” Are Depends Upon What I Think You Know

If you have stayed in hotels at all in the last 10 or so years, you have probably noticed the placards in the bathroom requesting that you re-use your towels. If you’re like me, part of you thinks, “Sure, I can use my towel more than once. I do that at home.” However, another part of me thinks, “On the other hand, the hotel is probably more interested in saving on their laundry bill than in saving the environment, and tossing the towel on the floor is kind of fun.” Perhaps I shouldn’t, but I tend to weigh both thoughts when I think about whether I will dutifully hang my towel up after using it, or rather, drop it luxuriously and defiantly to the floor to be laundered when next the room is serviced.

What you may not have noticed is that different hotels use different messages to try to get us to re-use our towels. If you’ve read this blog before, however, you won’t be surprised to find that people have actually studied those messages to try to understand which are most effective, and what they found reveals something very interesting about how we are influenced by the people around us.

Robert Cialdini (recently retired professor of marketing and psychology at Arizona State University) and his colleagues Noah Goldstein and Vlad Griskevicius ran an experiment in real hotels in which they pitted different “re-use your towel” messages against each other to measure which were most effective. In their first trial, they compared the effects of two messages.

The first message was designed to appeal to people’s desire to do the right thing and read: “HELP SAVE THE ENVIRONMENT. You can show your respect for nature and help save the environment by reusing your towels during your stay.”

The second message emphasized instead that everyone else was pitching in to save the environment by re-using the towels. This is called a social proof appeal and is a common one in marketing:  “JOIN YOUR FELLOW GUESTS IN HELPING TO SAVE THE ENVIRONMENT. Almost 75% of guests who are asked to participate in our new re- source savings program do help by using their towels more than once. You can join your fellow guests in this program to help save the environment by reusing your towels during your stay.”

So, which was more effective? In the end, 44% of hotel guests who saw the “everyone else is doing it” message re-used their towels, while only 35% of the “save the environment” guests did.

This result is consistent with many other findings that demonstrate that, in general, we tend to identify with others, and when we consider ourselves part of a group, we tend to do what the others are doing. In this case, the reference group was a rather weakly defined one — other hotel guests — all or most of whom might be thought to be complete strangers. That it was defined so weakly may contribute to why compliance lagged under 50%.
Still, given that the effect appeared with such a weakly defined group, the researchers wanted to test whether changing the nature of the reference group would alter how influential the message was. The researchers figured that if they made the reference groups more personally relevant to the guest, compliance with the towel re-use program would increase. To test this, they created a set of 5 cards, including the two from the first experiment, plus three more. The additional three included one in which the reference group was more specific — hotel guests who had stayed in that very room; one in which the re-use habits were called out by gender (males re-used at 74%, females re-used at 76%); and the final card said that “other citizens” re-used their towels. Quite reasonably, the researchers thought that people would respond more to knowledge that either other men, other women, or other citizens were re-using their towels, and would respond less strongly to information that other people who had stayed in that hotel room had complied. After all, the only thing one resident of room 222 would have in common with a former room 222 guest would be the very fact that they stayed in room 222 — a very weak association, indeed.

In fact, however, the most effective message was the same-room message. People were more likely to take a cue about how to behave from complete strangers who had happened to once stay in the same hotel room (49% compliance) than they were to take the same cue from other people of their gender or nationality (44%).

Now, it is hard to imagine people identifying much with former same-room residents — hard to imagine former residents of room 1245 reunions, t-shirts with the slogan, “We are the people of 333,” etc. And yet, it seems that the thought, “I am staying in room 222, and we are the type of hotel patrons who re-use our towels” informed people’s behavior. So, just to be sure they were seeing what they were seeing, the experimenters gathered another group of experimental participants and asked them which groups they would feel more affiliated with, same-room-in-the-hotel guests, same gender guests, or same country guests. The hotel guests in the same room came in last. As expected, people don’t generally feel very groupy about people who stayed in the same room.

So, what was going on?

The researchers concluded that when we look around to find out how we should behave, we look for reference groups that might naturally have a norm, or accepted practice, for the particular behavior we are concerned with. In other words, if I am a new Boston Red Sox fan and wondering what to do when a New York Yankee comes to bat, I would observe the behavior of other Red Sox fans (and then boo loudly). However, if I were interested in knowing how to greet the Queen of England, I would be much less likely to draw a lesson from my fellow bleacher creatures. Even if they were strangers, I would be more likely to draw my cues for this behavior from people who might be expected to know something about royal protocol.

When advertisers select models and spokespeople, and when marketers craft messages designed to get us to part with our money, they use techniques such as this one to establish a buying-friendly reference from which we may draw our cues. Next time you’re watching TV, reading a magazine or browsing a website, take a moment to notice what the reference groups are. See if you can name the group and how the marketer wants you to think about their product. It may be a fun exercise, and it may even save you some money.

At BeyondThePurchase.Org we are researching the connection between people’s spending habitshappiness, and values.  To learn about your spending habits, what influences your buying behavior, and how you define the good life, first Login or Register with Beyond The Purchase, then take our Materialistic Values Scale, our Consumer Susceptibility to Interpersonal Influence Scale, and our Beliefs about Well-being. We think you may learn a lot about what causes you to part with your hard-earned money.

The article referenced above is called, “A Room with a Viewpoint: Using Social Norms to Motivate Environmental Conservation in Hotels,” and was published in the Journal of Consumer Research, October, 2008.

This blog post was written by Kerry Cunningham, a member of the Personality & Wellbeing Laboratory and recent M.S. graduate in Industrial-Organizational Psychology at San Francisco State University. Follow @kerryfc

About Kerry

Kerry has an M.S. in Industrial-Organizational psychology and something just short of 20 years experience as a manager and executive in b2b direct marketing. Currently, Kerry works with organizations to improve processes and practices in the area of people management. In addition, Kerry has a deep and abiding passion for all things evolution, but particularly evolutionary perspectives on organizational and economic behavior. When not geeking out with research literature and data, Kerry is generally playing tennis and/ or enjoying a restorative cocktail.
This entry was posted in Research Findings, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.