Competitive Altruism: Being Green in Public

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Karen Bleier / AFP / Getty Images

Shannon Scott, a saleswoman for Toyota, demonstrates how to plug in the Prius on April 21, 2009, in Washington, D.C.

Many people on both the right and the left like to portray environmentalism as sacrifice — denying oneself some kind of pleasure (a heated pool, extra space in an SUV, the convenience of dry cleaning) in order to help save the planet. Conservatives do so partly because they believe pursuing self-interest in the form of material pleasures is necessary for the proper functioning of markets. Liberals do so because they believe rampant materialism can distort the proper functioning of democracies (and because "Yes We Can" T shirts don't need dry cleaning anyway). But what if environmentalism didn't really involve sacrifice in the first place? (Read "A Greener Convention, a Greener Future?")

Sure, buying a green product like one of those long-life compact fluorescent bulbs means giving up the understated softness of a regular incandescent. But you also gain something precious when you buy a compact fluorescent: status. When your friends see the bulb screwed into the socket of your lamp, many of them will think you're a better, more socially conscious person (which you may well be). And as the aphorist Publilius Syrus wrote a couple thousand years ago, "A good reputation is more valuable than money."

Evolutionary psychologists have a cynical term for cooperative, procommunity behaviors like buying a Prius or shopping at Whole Foods or carrying a public-radio tote bag: competitive altruism. Cynical, but accurate. As several studies (like this one) have shown, altruistic people achieve higher status, and are much more likely to behave altruistically in situations where their actions are public than when they will go unnoticed. Competitive altruism explains why soldiers jump onto grenades during war (their clans will reap the rewards) and why vain CEOs build hospital wings (they enjoy the social renown that they could never acquire from closing another big deal). In many hunter-gatherer societies, including some Native American tribes in the Pacific Northwest, prominent families have staged elaborate ceremonies in which they compete to give away possessions.

Idealistic environmentalists may not like these findings, but they should pay attention to them. Many hotels appeal to guests to reuse their towels with little cards asking them to help protect the planet. But as evolutionary psychologist Vladas Griskevicius of the University of Minnesota helped show in a 2008 Journal of Consumer Research paper (here's a PDF), hotel patrons are much more likely to reuse towels when informed that a majority of hotel guests do so than when they are merely asked to help save the environment.

Two weeks ago, at the Association for Psychological Science convention in San Francisco, Griskevicius presented new research that furthers the competitive-altruism theory. Traditionally, economists have presumed that if people are seeking status, they will simply buy the most luxurious product they can afford. But Griskevicius and his colleagues — Joshua Taylor of the University of New Mexico and Bram Van den Bergh of the Rotterdam School of Management — theorized that when given an eco-friendly alternative, competitive altruism would compel people to forgo luxury for environmental status. To test the theory, they conducted several experiments.

In the first, 168 college students were asked to imagine themselves being the central character in two stories. In the first story, they graduate from college and then find a job with a major company that has a well-appointed lobby and swank office furniture. In the second story, the participants are asked to imagine losing a ticket to a concert but then finding it and heading out to the show. The first story is designed to prime readers with an intensified desire for prestige; the second story has no such effect.

After reading one of the stories, the study participants were presented with equally priced choices between two cars, two household cleaners and two dishwashers; in each case, the participants could pick a more luxurious nongreen item (a high-end Sub-Zero dishwasher with a no-spot drying system, for instance) or an eco-friendly item (a dishwasher with a short running time made with recycled components). Those who read the status-priming story were far more likely to pick the green product than the luxury product. They were also more likely to pick the green product than another control group that read neither of the priming stories. (Watch an interview with Ford CEO Alan Mulally.)

Griskevicius and his colleagues conducted a separate study, this one involving 93 students. This time, they presented the volunteers with choices involving different products, including a North Face backpack with water-resistant coating and many storage compartments vs. a simple, eco-friendly North Face backpack with fewer features but which was constructed from organic fibers. This time, the students were asked to imagine they were buying the equally priced products either at a store or online, in private. The results: those imagining themselves buying the backpacks in public were more likely to go for the enviro backpacks, even though they weren't as nice as the luxury models. By contrast, those told to imagine buying in private tended to opt for the nongreen backpack that offered more features. "Status motives," the authors conclude, "led people to forgo luxury only when it could influence one's reputation."

These results help explain a strange thing that happened in 2007: even though tax credits for the Toyota Prius had expired in late 2006, sales actually increased the following year by 69%. (Similarly, prerecession sales of the Lexus LS 600h L far exceeded projections, even though some had wrongly predicted that green-friendly consumers wouldn't shell out well over $100,000 for a hybrid.

The practical conclusions here? If green products are too cheap, they might undermine the buyer's ability to signal her status — a desire built into our evolutionary psychology. Griskevicius and his colleagues recommend that companies find a way to publicize the fact that celebrities buy green products. They might also consider keeping those products at a higher price, since penniless people can't afford to indulge in status-seeking and others will pay a premium for it. We may all be selfish and petty, but there's no reason the planet can't benefit from those shortcomings.

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