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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Killed by the Messenger

Air Date: Week of

It’s long been said the medium is the message. But psychology and marketing professor Robert Cialdini says that sometimes those who produce environmental messages ignore the social science of how people think and respond. He talks with host Steve Curwood.


CURWOOD: Scientists are clear that in the not-too-distant future, we humans need to reduce our carbon dioxide emissions down to zero. But there’s a major disconnect between the scientific urgency, and what most of us feel in our daily lives.

Maybe marketers or psychologists could help get the message across. And one expert who’s thought a lot about environmental messaging is Robert Cialdini. He’s professor emeritus of psychology and marketing at Arizona State University. I asked Professor Cialdini why the urgency of the climate message wasn’t getting people to act.

CIALDINI: I think it has to do with a fundamental communication error that we are making. And, that is to describe the problem of so many people failing to take energy conserving action. We decry the widespread nature of these counter environmental actions that every one around us is taking.

And, we think that by making the problem seem so widespread that everyone will marshall their forces against it. What we forget is that there is a sub-text message that says ‘look at all of the people who are doing this wrong.’

The sub-text message is ‘look at all the people who are doing this wrong.’ And that message of what those around us are doing is a more primitive and a more powerful message than those having to do with approval or disapproval. What we have to do is emphasize all of the people who are doing this right, rather than all of the people who are doing this wrong.

CURWOOD: Now, as I understand it, some of your work involves looking at what you call ‘the norm of reciprocation,’ I guess, the notion of what we’re not supposed to take without giving in return. Now what significance does that norm of reciprocation have with respect to people’s behavior say, with regard to the environment or climate change?

CIALDINI: Great question. The norm for reciprocation, as you say, is deeply felt. And, it turns out to be universal. There is no human culture that fails to train in its members from childhood in this rule that says you must not take without giving in return.

You must not receive without giving back for what you have received. And, we actually showed that in one of our hotel studies with the use of towels. We compared a sign that said, ‘if you will reuse your towels, we will give a donation to an environmental cause.’ That produced no increase in reuse of towels, compared to a sign that just said, ‘do this for the environment.’

But, we had another sign in this experiment that said, ‘we’ve already given to an environmental cause in the name of our guests. Would you reuse your towels to help us cover the expense.’ That produced a 19 percent increase in towel reuse. So people wanted to give back after they had received something.

Well here is the larger point that I think is available to be made from those data. You know, you’ve heard a lot of people say, ‘I’m entitled to use this energy, I worked for it, I made my contribution to this society. I can buy a Hummer if I want to.’

In other words, they’re saying, ‘I acted first, and so I’m owed something in return.’ What I think a legitimate counter-message would be, to that kind of thinking, is: ‘you didn’t go first. Nature went first. The earth went first. You have been given a set of resources so rich, so extensive that it’s your turn now, by the rule for reciprocation, it’s your turn now to give back and to be a steward of those resources.’ That’s a message that I think would be worth trying out.

CURWOOD: Okay! The climate activists come to you to design a campaign, a message, to get America and Americans aboard taking climate action. What’s the ad that you’d put together for this campaign?

CIALDINI: We’ve actually run some ads. We created three public service announcements to be run in Arizona communities. We had three components to the message. The majority of Arizonians, the people around you, approve of recycling. That’s one message. The second was: the majority of Arizonans do recycle. Both of those were true. And, the third was: the majority of Arizonan’s disapprove of the few who don’t recycle.

CURWOOD: Ooh! Ooh. That’s tough.

CIALDINI: And, we depicted scenes of individuals all recycling, approving of one another, and then identifying one individual who wasn’t recycling, and expressing disapproval of that individual. So, the key here was not to normalize the incorrect conduct, but to marginalize the incorrect conduct. And, those messages produced a 25.1 percent increase in recycling tonnage in the communities where they were played. Now, I don’t know how much you know about public service announcements, but that’s unheard of. If you get a one to two percent deflection in behavior from a PSA, that’s considered a success.

CURWOOD: Robert Cialdini is the author of “Influence, the Psychology of Disusasion,” as well as several other books on the science of persuasion, and also a professor emeritus of psychology and marketing at Arizona State University. Professor Cialdini, thank you so much for taking this time.

CIALDINI: I enjoyed it Steve!

CURWOOD: You persuaded me! And, you can hear more of Professor Cialdini’s interview at our website L-O-E dot org.



Click here for an extended interview with Robert Cialdini

Cialdini on Environmental Messages

Cialdini Twitter feed

Professor Robert Cialdini


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