A Room with a Viewpoint: Using Social Norms to Motivate Environmental Conservation in Hotels
This paper studies the effectiveness of conservation signs at hotels requesting guests’ reuse their towels in order to protect the environment. The authors’ hypothesized that using descriptive norms (e.g. “the majority of guests reuse their towels”) would prove more effective than the traditional approach of touting the environmental benefits of towel reuse.
The authors conducted two experiments to investigate whether using descriptive norms to appeal to guests would be more effective than the current industry standard appeal.
In experiment 1, data was collected on 1,058 instances of potential towel reuse in a mid-sized, mid-priced national hotel chain. Guests (who were not aware of the study) were either given a card that focused on environmental protection or a card that informed them that a majority of other guests participate in the towel reuse program. Note that data was only recorded for guests who stayed a minimum of two nights and no guest could participate in the study more than once. Results indicated that the descriptive norm condition yielded a significantly higher towel reuse rate than the environmental protection condition.
Experiment 2 investigated how guests’ conformity to a descriptive norm varies as a function of the type of reference group attached to that norm. The authors hypothesized that guests were more likely to be influenced by the norms of their immediate surroundings (whether guests in that specific hotel room had reused their towels) than by those of their less immediate surroundings (global hotel guests, male or female, etc.). In this experiment, five types of cards were randomly distributed at the same hotel used in experiment 1. These cards were broken down as follows: 1) a standard environmental protection message 2) a message stating that 75% of guests in Fall 2003 reused their towels 3) a message stating that 75% of guests in Fall 2003 in that specific hotel room reused their towels 4) similar message to #2 but used the term “fellow citizen” 5) similar message to #2 but used the term “men and woman”. Results indicated that the same room identity descriptive (#3) yielded a significantly higher towel reuse rate than the other three descriptive norm conditions (#2, #4, #5). Basically, what the authors considered the least meaningful group in the experiment, produced the highest level of towel reuse. Note that this group was the most physically proximate to the guests.
Theoretical and practical relevance:
Managers should employ social science research and theory rather than simply using hunches or best guesses in crafting their marketing efforts. In addition, incorporating a descriptive normative component to these marketing efforts should ensure that the norms of the reference group are as situationally similar to the intended audience's environment, or more simply put, relate to the intended audience in as physically proximate a way as possible.