Research Summaries: A Room with a Viewpoint: Using Social Norms to Motivate Environmental Conservation in Hotels

Towels on a rack in a hotel room

Towels on a rack in a hotel room (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Don’ Panic. I know the title of this research article seems heavy, so keep your towel nearby as I try to walk you through this article from Cialdini et al in the Journal of Consumer Research.


  1. Cialdini is famous for his book Influence and his work focuses around how to influence other people. One way to get people to do what you want, is to refer to social norms and thus use the power of peer pressure.  For example, a toothpaste  manufacturer may advertise that most people do use toothpaste and that too of their brand. Thus, a social norm is highlighted and this influences subsequent behavior of the consumer.
  2. Another way to influence is by referencing to some standards. Like the toothpaste manufacturer may advertise that it has salt in it, or is made organically, something that has to do with the merits of the product per se and not so much whether the majority use it in this way or the other.
  3. One of the problems hotel owners face is reuse of towels by the guests. They would like to encourage reuse of towels (rather than washing them daily) if the guest is staying for a long duration (more than one night), for both economic as well as environmental reasons. They typically use environmental themed messages to encourage reuse of towels.
  4. Caildini et al placed signs for reuse that used the usual environmental pitch (control condition) and also signs for reuse that referenced a social norm (viz. that 75 % or majority of guests do indeed reuse their towels, this was the experimental condition) in different rooms in a hotel and observed the reuse pattern over several days and several guests.  What they found was that the message that referred to social norms (most people reuse towels) was much more persuasive than the environmental harm message.
  5. In addition to this, they also performed another experiment, in which they contrasted among other conditions the usual social norm message (most guests in this hotel reuse towels) with the situational social norm message (  most guests in this particular hotel room #xxx reuse towels). What they found was that making it more situation-specific boosted the rate of towel reuse even further.
  6. Thus, if we want to influence someone we should try using social norms and these social norms should be as specific to the situation of the target audience as possible. I will give an example. Last week, while taking a positive education session with a class of students, the class seemed a bit less participating in the beginning. We could have asked them to participate as it will make them more confident (referring to a desired standard) or we could have told them that usually children of their age group are curious and participating.  What we did instead was told them that the students of the other section, whose session we had just completed, were very active and participating, thus using the  situational social norm (although we were not doing it consciously at that time).
  7. Overall, using social norms , that too situation specific , is one more tool in your arsenal to influence others (for the good hopefully)

If this summary got you interested, do check out the original article here.

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