Everybody’s Doing It

I’ll bet you’ve been there. You’ve stood under the unkind fluorescent lights of a hotel bathroom, looking at one of those milquetoasty pasteboard signs about towel reuse. And maybe you’ve thought, What a crock. In the face of innumerable planetary ills, we’re expected to believe that towels are the cure?

But marketing researcher Robert Cialdini must have a sunnier disposition. When he first noticed those little signs, he was positively delighted by the opportunities, remembering the billboard slogan this space available for lease. “I thought, ‘This space available for test,'” he said during a recent talk in San Francisco.

Cialdini and his Arizona State University students, with the consent of two Phoenix-area hotels, took their theories of persuasion to the towel rack. First, they tested the familiar exhortations to “Help save the environment” and “Help save resources for future generations.” These messages had similar success rates, convincing an unimpressive 30 percent of guests to reuse their towels after one night.

Things improved, however, when the research team resorted to peer pressure. The invitation to “Join your fellow guests in helping to save the environment” — including the justifiable statement that nearly three-quarters of guests used their towels more than once — garnered a 44 percent participation rate after one night. Then, the researchers drew guests’ peers even closer: “Seventy-five percent of the guests who stayed in this room . . . [used] their towels more than once,” they asserted. With the ghosts of former guests peeping over their shoulders, nearly 50 percent of hotel customers hung up their towels.
We are a pliable people, it seems: what our neighbors, and even our unseen fellow hotel guests, do in their bathrooms wields more influence than we like to think. Cialdini argues that these flocking instincts can, and in some cases already do, work for the planet. In a telephone survey of more than two thousand Californians, for instance, he found that the belief that one’s neighbors conserve energy was closely linked to household energy savings — even though most respondents professed higher-minded motivations such as environmental protection and civic responsibility. Activists, Cialdini says, should take note.

Yet one group resists the do-good herd. An unexpected result of the hotel towel study was that no matter the message, American Express cardholders reused their towels significantly less often than Visa or MasterCard members. The reason, speculates Cialdini, is that many AmEx members take their advertising slogan to heart, believing that membership really does “have its privileges.” One of them, it appears, is to use as many towels as you darn well please.