The Smiley Face Gambit

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

By Wray Herbert

Anyone who has watched the movie An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore’s documentary about global warming, is familiar with the concept of a “carbon footprint.” Your carbon footprint is your personal contribution to harmful climate change, based on what kind of car you drive, how often you crank up the AC, and so forth. You can go on-line and actually calculate your carbon footprint, so you can see your share in the blame for all those beautiful calving glaciers and melting ice caps.

I plead guilty. The national average is 7.5 tons of carbon a year, and I am spewing out a whopping 11.2 tons. I also plead surprised. It must be the AC. Or maybe the bathroom light. I know I should be better about that. Whatever my failing, I confess I felt some shame when I first saw this number. What it said, graphically and undeniably, was this: Some Americans are responsible citizens, and you are not one of them.

I adjusted the thermostat.

I have since learned that this is a fairly typical human response. Without knowing it, I had been exposed to the power of what psychologists call a “normative message.” Most people want to be normal. We’re not comfortable being on the fringe. (There are deeply disturbed exceptions to every law of human nature, of course.) So when we are given information that underscores our deviancy, the natural impulse is to get ourselves as quickly as we can back toward the center.

Marketers know about this impulse, and a lot of marketing makes use of social norms. This is especially true of campaigns targeting some kind of public good: reducing smoking or binge-drinking, for example, or encouraging recycling. The problem with these campaigns is that, well, they often don’t work. Indeed, they sometimes appear to have the opposite of their intended effect.

Why would this be? Psychologist Wesley Schultz of California State University has a hunch about why. Despite the fact that we want to be normal, most people are very bad at estimating what normal human behavior really looks like. For example, many people probably think it’s typical to spew 11 tons of carbon into the world every year, while others might think that a couple tons is probably closer to the mark. I frankly had no clue what my carbon footprint was, or anyone else’s. So when Al Gore tells us that the national average is in fact 7.5 tons, he likely is sparking two very different reactions: Some, like me, feel guilty for being so gluttonous. But others probably react: whew, did something right for a change.

So I adjusted my thermostat out of guilt, but those feeling self-righteous are not going to do that. It wouldn’t make any sense. Indeed, Schultz and his colleagues suspect that people who are already performing better than the norm may also adjust—but in a socially undesirable way. That is, they also move toward the center, seeking out the average, but in their case by increasing their energy use. This boomerang effect could in theory offset any greening of behavior, such as mine, and account for the overall ineffectiveness of such marketing strategies.

Schultz decided to test this idea in the real world. He enlisted nearly 300 residents of San Marcos, California, who agreed to let him monitor their home energy consumption. He measured their energy use once to start, again soon after, and once again several weeks later. Throughout the experiment he gave them information about their actual energy use and how it compared to typical energy use in San Marcos.

Schultz wanted to test one additional idea. With some of the households, he didn’t just deliver straight information. He attached an emoticon to the information sheet. If the homeowners were below the community average in energy use they got a smiley face; if they were consuming more than their neighbors, they got a frowning face. He wanted to see if social approval or disapproval—conveyed by the emoticons—might moderate people’s behavior, for better or worse.

The results were clear. As reported in the May issue of the journal Psychological Science, the residents who got just straight information changed their behavior as predicted. That is, wastrels became more conservative, and the frugal became more licentious. There was a boomerang effect in other words. However, the greener consumers who also got praise, in the form of a smiley face, did not become more wasteful. The message they were getting was something like: “You’re doing better than most on the environmental front and society applauds you for this. Keep it up.” And they did.

How about the frowning face, the stinging symbol of society’s disappointment with you? Well, people who earned a frown did moderate their consumption, but no more than those who simply learned of their excessive energy consumption. When you know you’re misbehaving, you may not need finger wagging to get you to adjust your thermostat. Who knows what it would take to make you trade in that SUV for a socially responsible hybrid.

For more insights into the quirks of human nature, visit “We’re Only Human . . .” at

posted by Wray Herbert @ 10:43 AM


At 8:30 PM , Blogger Susie said...

Did you really go on line and calculate your carbon footprint and adjust your thermostat? I'm checking.... tomorrow.

At 10:42 PM , Blogger Ada_Veen said...

Everybody loves the carrot!


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