Robert Cialdini is My Hero: Sustainability “Social Proof”

Robert Cialdini is My Hero: Sustainability “Social Proof”

When people see that their neighbors have more energy efficient households, it GETS them!  My absolute hero (and someone whose work I am closely studying for my master’s thesis), Robert Cialdini, is now leveraging his “social proof” compliance technique for sustainability purposes.  A New York Times article by Saqib Rahim reports on Cialdini’s post-academic career in studying consumer behavior and energy efficiency as chief scientist for OPOWER. According to the article, he recently tested the effectiveness of four different signs/messages with regard to energy conservation with a sample population in San Diego.  I LOVE that (my paraphrase) “your neighbors are beating you” was the message winner!  It appeals to my fourth grade competitive bombardment game mentality… and that, I believe, still exists in us all.


As mentioned in Rahim’s article, the other three signs Cialdini’s team tested were, 1) saving energy for the environment’s sake, 2) doing it for the sake of future generations, and 3) the one most of us non-research types might suspect would be most effective: cash savings.  Isn’t this fascinating?  As I’ve mentioned in so many other blog posts by now, Cialdini’s “social proof” has two components: 1 – uncertainty about which behavior is appropriate (need to see others around you doing the behavior), and 2 – similarity, or the need to see that others, and preferably those very much like you, are behaving that way.

A few examples Cialdini gives from his now classic book, INFLUENCE: The Psychology of Persuasion, include: tip jars (bartenders “salt” them by putting in some bills before they set it out for customers),  “best-seller” of “fastest-selling” marketing messages (I don’t need to explain this for you, my very marketing-oriented readership), and – this is perhaps most compelling (and incredibly creepy), the methods by which Jim Jones’ teachings created a cult.  Powerful stuff, that social proof.

Those of us driven to “inspire” citizen behavior change toward sustainability may be a tad disappointed that “saving the environment” or “helping future generations” doesn’t really work – or work yet.  But, the point is to start where people are – to be pragmatic with persuasion methods.  Perhaps the most baseline guide for human decision-making is the quick look-around at others.  Social proof is a “method” that can be called on quickly and automatically.  Cialdini writes that social proof “provides a convenient shortcut for determining how to behave.”  That shortcut can be used for good, but can also be used for bad -  to leave people who use that shortcut “vulnerable to the attacks of profiteers,” as he reminds us.

But, if you are reading this, you are here to do some sustainability good.  So, how can we, in each of our various – but interconnected(!) – business ventures, put social proof to work?  We can communicate our sustainability stories better, and reflect the truth in just how many of our customers/members/employees are already demonstrating the behavior we’d like to promote (and – clearly – that means buying our more responsibly designed and produced products in a lot of cases).  Like the “beat the Jones’s” approach that Cialdini seems to be proving, we can also tap the competitive spirit that exists (whether we acknowledge it or not) among human beings.

The race to the top of energy efficiency and other sustainable living and business practice goals can be fun and social!  Let’s all learn more about, and use the concept of “social proof” to make participating in that race the only human option.

*Thanks to @Think_LED (on Twitter) for ensuring I noticed today’s NYT piece!

Andrea writes exclusively for her blog, LearnedonWomen, and appears regularly on Vermont Public Radio.