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  • Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.

Virtue = license?
March 28, 2010 - 7:46pm

A key question, to my mind at least, is how people can be motivated to make more sustainable choices. In our consumer society (remember when the common phrase was "American citizen" rather than "American consumer"?), choice pretty much boils down to purchase decisions, And for decades, our purchase decisions have been shaped in large part by propaganda in which consideration of sustainability (ecological, economic or social) was conspicuous by its absence.

In some twisted sense, the best hope for more sustainable purchase decisions may lie in the same sort of technology that convinced post-WWII American women to smoke cigarettes by telling them it made them look worldly and sophisticated. If we can get people hooked on newer/cheaper/disposable, why couldn't we sell them on classic/better/durable? Admittedly, how industry benefits from such an approach is problematic given current market realities, but markets (and thus market realities) are created by governments, aren't they?

Now I've never claimed to have this whole thing figured out. Once carbon emission has a significantly non-zero price, then maybe. Until then, no. But even my most incomplete thinking got more muddled this weekend when I read about some research conducted at the University of Toronto. In an upcoming article in Psychological Science, Nina Mazar and Chen-Bo Zhong write about an experiment conducted with lab rats (oops, I mean undergrads, but I've often wondered whether psych researchers know the difference).

In the experiment, students were first given simulated money to spend in a simulated online store. For students in the control group, the store offered a fairly typical mix of consumer products. For students in the test group, the items in the store were far more likely to be thought of as "green" or "sustainable". All students, however, spent their simulated money on whatever simulated products they chose. No one was forced to buy anything "green".

Each student was next put through an exercise in which questions, the answers to which were easily determinable, were asked and answered. What made the exercise interesting was that the incentive system (again, monetary) was glaringly rigged to incent some incorrect answers. Students, of course, could answer correctly or incorrectly without fear of reprisal for taking advantage of the skewed incentive structure.

Finally, students were told to take the incentive payments they'd earned from an envelope of (real, not simulated) cash, seemingly unobserved.

Curiously, the students who had first "visited" the online store where most products were environmentally friendly showed a markedly higher propensity to cheat on the subsequent exercises. Not that the students in the control group didn't cheat, but the ones in the test group cheated significantly more.

Presuming that the two groups of students were well randomized, it would seem that the differentiating factor was not some prior tendency toward (or against) environmental responsibility. Rather, the difference seems to have been introduced during the simulated shopping experience itself, and to have been triggered by the greater availability (and, on average, more frequent simulated purchase) of "green" products.

How this will play into creating incentives for sustainable consumption, I have no idea. But unless someone can explain these results away (and, I must admit, I haven't read the full article yet), the necessary propaganda may have to focus on the idea of "worldly" in its more negative sense. Which may appeal to my own twisted sense of humor, but will likely make the whole thing harder to explain to right-thinking people everywhere.


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