Motivating Polluters to Clean Up Their Act

Activists such as former Vice President Al Gore are trying get ordinary Americans to think more about the environment. But a new study suggests that reprimanding people for polluting doesn't put an end to the pollution — it may have just the opposite effect.

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This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Alex Chadwick.

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How to make people behave in ways that protect the environment. For years we've been hectored by earnest greenies who want us to live as virtuously as they do, but people chafe at being told what to do, how to live.

NPR's Alix Spiegel profiles a psychological researcher who thinks he knows how to motivate us better.

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ALIX SPIEGEL reporting:

If you lived through the 70's and owned a television, you probably remember it, the commercial named by TV Guide as one of the most popular of all time. It began with the image of a Native American, dark braided hair stuck through with a feather rowing first past the calm banks of a river, then the trash littered water of an industrial park and on through one ruined landscape after another until in the final and iconic image a single tear tracks down his face.

Unidentified Announcer: Some people have deep abiding respect for the natural beauty that was once this country, and some people don't. People start pollution, people can stop it.

SPIEGEL: Produced by the environmental group Keep American Beautiful Iron Eyes Cody as the spot was known played on and off for almost two decades. And it wasn't just TV Guide that considered the ad successful.

According to Robert Cialdini, a professor of psychology at Arizona State University, environmental organizations across the nation came to see this public service announcement as a model for all PSA's to follow.

Dr. ROBERT CIALDINI, PhD (professor, Arizona State University): It was regarded as the greatest thing since sliced bread as their single most successful message to the American public.

SPIEGEL: This is unfortunate says Cialdini in view of his recent research. Research which makes the case that not only are ads like Iron Eyes Cody not effective, but they might actually be counterproductive.

In a recent article published in Current Directions in Psychological Science, Cialdini argues that any time information campaigns try to mobilize action against a problem by emphasizing its prevalence, they normalize and encourage the very thing they're trying to prevent.

The Iron Eyes Cody spot, for example, shows image after image of polluted landscapes and speak directly about how many people are abusing the environment, which Cialdini says is a bad idea, a very bad idea.

Dr. CIALDINI: Within the statement, many people are doing this undesirable thing, lurks the powerful and undercutting subtext message many people are doing this undesirable thing and that legitimizes it.

SPIEGEL: To demonstrate his thesis Cialdini points to one of the many experiments described in his article, research that took place in the petrified national forest in Arizona.

See in recent years the Petrified Forest has been decimated by relentless vandalism. Tourists are simply pocketing the petrified wood piece by piece and to stop the theft, Cialdini says the park decided to display the following warning on a prominently placed sign.

Dr. CIALDINI: Because so many people are stealing petrified wood and crystals from the forest floor the integrity of the forest is being threatened.

SPIEGEL: The problem with the sign according to Cialdini was that it emphasized that the behavior was popular and so Cialdini decided to test an alternative.

On one path he kept the original sign the Park Service had posted, on another he used no sign at all, and on a third he designed a sign which did not stress in any way that the problem of stealing was widespread.

He then salted the path beside each area with pieces of marked wood. As Cialdini predicted the original sign posted by the Park Service achieved the exact opposite of its intended effect.

Dr. CIALDINI: Compared to a path that had no such sign, that sign tripled theft.

SPIEGEL: And in the areas which featured a sign of Cialdini's own design, one that made no mention whatsoever of the prevalence of the problem, but instead focused on the cost to the environment of such destructive behavior, theft dropped substantially.

Dr. CIALDINI: That sign reduced theft by half compared to a condition where there was no sign.

SPIEGEL: In fact Cialdini has been able to substantially increase environmentally friendly behavior in a wide range of situations, in parking garages, in hotel rooms, each time by substituting a flawed message with one that respected the importance of a single principle. People are less motivated by moral arguments than by the behavior of other people.

Mr. CIALDINI: When we are uncertain about whether to be altruistic or pro-social or environmentally conscious, we look around us for the answer. We don't look inside ourselves. We are all swept by the power of the crowd.

SPIEGEL: Unfortunately, Cialdini says, environmental activists have been slow to absorb this truth.

Mr. CIALDINI: But it's not just them. Information campaigns emphasize that alcohol and drug use is intolerably high among teenagers, that suicide rates are alarming. That too many of us are driving at above the speed limit. All of that is a mistake.

SPIEGEL: In fact, in 1998, Keep America Beautiful, the organization that originally produced the Iron Eyes Cody spot, decided to redo and update the ad. The title of their new public service announcement, Back By Popular Neglect.

Alix Spiegel, NPR News. Washington.

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