Conservation Corner: PEER PRESSURE – conserving water because everyone is doing it


Conservation corner - winter 2007


If you think peer pressure ends in high school, think again. The same peer pressure that forced some of us into clothing and hairstyles that haunt us decades later, when our children find our high school yearbooks, can be used to motivate people to conserve water.

Studies conducted by Arizona State University conclude that “the ‘Everybody else is doing it’ message works better than trying to appeal to people’s sense of social responsibility, desire to save money or even their hope of safeguarding the earth for future generations.”

Researchers placed door knockers about energy conservation on San Diego area homes. The door knockers carried one of four messages:

  1. people could save money by conserving energy,
  2. conserving energy saves earth’s resources,
  3. conserving energy is socially responsible, or
  4. the majority of neighbors try regularly to conserve energy.

The fourth door knocker was the only one that led to significantly decreased energy consumption. According to the study, homeowners who received this door knocker reduced consumption by almost two kilowatt hours per day. What an interesting twist on the concept of keeping up with the Joneses.

In another study, researchers put one of four different cards in hotel rooms, asking guests to reuse towels. The messages were:

  1. help save the environment,
  2. help save resources for future generations,
  3. partner with us to save the environment, and
  4. the majority of hotel guests reuse towels when asked.

When the towel counting was done, researchers read the verdict: compared to the first three messages, the fourth message increased towel reuse by an average of 34%.

Of course, peer pressure can work both ways. There are condominium developments in Florida where the gardening committee runs around with a ruler and a color swatch to catch residents whose turf is not the perfect height or
just the right shade of green. The socially-created fear of a brown spot on the lawn
is one of the reasons Americans spend an estimated $40 billion a year on lawn care.

Peer pressure is most often used in water conservation programs to reinforce positive behaviour, but it can also be used to mock negative behaviour.  During summer months, Kelowna, Penticton and Vernon run television commercials in which a ‘water hog’ wastes water in the most obvious, and in context of the ad, foolish ways: watering during the day, washing the driveway with a hose, etc.

It would be hard for anyone who has seen this ad to wash the driveway with a hose again, without on some level thinking he/she is being a water hog and hoping the neighbor is not watching.

Given that peer pressure is such an effective method of changing behavior, it is surprising that it is not used more often in water conservation programs. Glance through the water conservation pages on municipal web sites and you will see that most have messages that reinforce saving money and responsible water use for environmental reasons.

While these messages are important, the research indicates that it may be a good idea to add a little peer pressure to give people an extra push.

If you still doubt the effectiveness of peer pressure, dig out your own high school yearbook and ask yourself – did that hairstyle really look cool, and, if so, why aren’t you still wearing it like that today?


By Neal Klassen, BCWWA “Watermark” contributor


Posted June 2008

Originally published in the Winter 2007 issue of Watermark Magazine, the official publication of the British Columbia Water & Waste Association (BCWWA).