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You’re using the wrong arguments to influence people

By Mastery5 min read

You have been hired as a consultant to write a card to be left in all of a hotel’s rooms.

The purpose of this card is to encourage more people to recycle their towels. What would you write?

I have asked this question of many groups, and their answers show huge creativity in style and wording. They make compelling arguments to recycle towels such as:

  • ‘Waste is killing our planet. Don’t waste energy. Recycle your towels’
  • ‘For every towel you recycle, we will pay 25c to Friends of the Earth’
  • ‘Recycle your towels and we’ll give you $5’

Do these approaches work?

I chose the three card examples deliberately, because these seem to represent not only the most common versions of cards people produce when I ask them at events. They also represent the approaches we most often take when we are trying to influence people or change behaviour. We tend to appeal to peoples values, make a rational case (often positioned as an ‘if…then’ statement), or we try and bribe. To state that we are not affected by arguments to our heart, our head or our wallet would just not be correct. The point is that we’re not only affected by those arguments.

Keeping up with the Joneses

Robert Cialdini, one of the world’s foremost experts on the psychology of influence, has looked in detail at this question. For example, in a study of energy-saving behaviour in Californians, he found the biggest influencer over actual behaviour was not any cost-saving argument, or even the strength of their professed environmental beliefs. It was what their neighbours did. When people found out that they were using more energy than their neighbours, they decreased consumption over the next few weeks by 5.7%. People complied with the social norm.

What other people do has a powerful effect on our behaviour – for good and for bad. So be careful to use social norms wisely. Highlight how many people are acting badly, and you actually influence more people over to the dark side! In a study in Arizona National Park, a sign was put up saying ‘Many past visitors have removed the petrified wood from the park, changing the natural state of the Petrified Forest’, the amount of stolen wood tripled (compared to no sign)! The sign had created a social norm that stealing wood was the thing to do! Returning to the Californian study above, when people found out that they were using less energy than their neighbours, their consumption actually increased by 8.6%!

Cialdini explored the positive impact of social norms on towel re-use. He wrote a card which said that most guests recycled their towels at least once during their stay (a true message). This simple wording change on the card increased the percentage of recycled towels by 26%. However, since social norms have the strongest influence when we perceive the norm group as being like us, Cialdini made a further adaption. He changed the card so it included the words ‘Most guests who stayed in this room…’. The percentage of recycled towels rose by 33% over the standard message.

Social Obligations

The promise of a donation to charity makes sense and is bound to have some influence…surely. It is a geat xample of an ‘if…then’ approach. In fact, this design had no influence in behaviour as compared to a standard, pro-environmental plea. A minor change in the wording, however, can have a dramatic effect. If the card reads ‘In anticipation of you recycling your towel, the hotel has already made a donation on your behalf to Friends of the Earth’, the percentage of towels recycled increases by 45% [1]. Why does this happen? We live by social rules, and one of the most powerful is social reciprocity. I give, you give back; you give, I give back. By giving first, the hotel creates a powerful social need for us to even the balance sheet. So we feel compelled to reciprocate and recycle our towels.

What about the bribe? Surely a direct appeal to our self-interest must motivate us to act? In a well-known case from Israel, a group of child care facilities in Haifa began fining parents for lateness. What happened next astonished those involved: the percentage of parents arriving late doubled. The fine had effectively removed any sense of social obligation. It then became a simple cost-benefit question: is it worth 10 shekels for me to turn up late today?

What’s the Point?

Social influence is pervasive, powerful and largely unconscious. We don’t think of using these factors because we don’t think they affect us. We make assumptions about the cause of our behaviour, and that of others, which are incorrect. We assume people act as they do because of who they are (their values or personality), because it makes sense (logic) or because it is in their self-interest to do so. The fact is, there is another huge driver to our behaviour: the social context. Focus only on the argument and not on the social context and at best, you’ll influence people less than you could. At worst, you may find your arguments backfire on you.

Be honest now…why do you recycle?

I bet your answer wasn’t ‘Because other people around me do’. If it wasn’t, you’d be wrong (at least in part).


[1] In Goldstein, N.J., Martin, S.J. and Cialdini, R.B. (2007) ‘Yes! 50 secrets from the science of persuasion’. Profile Books.

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