What Motivates You to Do the Right Thing?

What motivates you? What makes you tick? And what, if anything, would influence a change in your behavior? Many of us assume that we have the answers, but the truth might not be so simple. While we may consciously think one way, there’s a chance that we subconsciously act in a different way altogether. So, how do we truly know what others are thinking? And is there a way to motivate people to change their behavior?

One way to find these answers and gain insight is to lurk outside of people’s homes and read their electric meters just like a group of graduate students did in a sunny Southern California subdivision just outside of San Diego. They were looking for answers to what motivated people to use less energy in their homes. And while they had a hypothesis, they needed hard facts.

Prior to taking the meter readings, the grad students started the study by showing residents four versions of a brochure. Each brochure had a different motivation for saving energy and residents were asked, “Which one would motivate you the most to use less electricity?” The motivators included:

  1. Energy conservation helps protect the environment
  2. Saving energy saves you money
  3. Energy conservation is the socially responsible thing to do
  4. Your neighbors are already conserving energy

[Break time: Before reading on, take a moment to rank the above four answers from most to least motivating and see how they compare to the residents’ answers.]

The majority of residents answered that the most motivating message was protecting the environment. This was followed by social responsibility, saving money and then neighbors. Great news, right?

Not so fast!

The next phase of this study had the grad students randomly place door hangers with one of the four motivational messages. The hangers were placed at houses in a different part of the community, and the different messages and where they were hung were precisely tracked. Every week for the next month, the grad students returned to read the electric meters at each house to see how the door hanger may have influenced each resident’s energy consumption.
When the researchers tabulated the results, something strange happened. The results were almost exactly the opposite of what the residents had said in the first part of the experiment. Environmental protection and social responsibility had the least impact on energy use, and cost savings did only slightly better. The message about what their neighbors were doing (i.e., the social norm) had by far the best results. In fact, the households that had received the social norm message showed nearly a 10% reduction in energy use over the other three. Even more impressively, these savings continued after a month.

So what’s the moral of the story? First, we aren’t great at predicting what actually influences our behavior. This is important to remember when conducting focus groups or market research. Second, while we like to think of ourselves as high-minded and independent, much of what we actually do is influenced by the actions of those around us.

When putting together a program to motivate people about environmental, public health, or other social issues, it is best to highlight the positive actions other people are already taking. Create materials that provide social proof or show an overall social norm. For most of us, real change isn’t about big ideas. It’s about the simple actions we are all taking. And as individuals, we don’t normally stray too far from the herd.

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