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Dr. Dena Gromet is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow with the Risk Management and Decision Processes Center at The Wharton School (University of Pennsylvania). She studies how the individual’s values and the features of a situation affect decision makers’ choices. Gromet and her colleagues recently published a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences about how political ideology affects the choice of light bulbs.
In Gromet’s study, consumers were offered a choice between a more expensive, more efficient, compact fluorescent light bulb (CFL) and a less expensive, less efficient, conventional light bulb. Conservatives and liberals were equally likely to choose the more expensive, more efficient CFL when the CFL label had no environmental message.
The addition of a label saying “Protect the environment” made conservatives less likely to choose the same CFLs. The “Protect the environment” label had no effect on the choices of liberals.
The results puzzled the pundits. How could the addition of an environmental message make the CFLs less attractive to conservatives? How could the addition of an environmental message make the CFLs no more attractive to liberals?
Though puzzling, these results dovetail with what social psychologist Norman. H. Andersen discovered about how people make judgments. Andersen, who was also a Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of California, San Diego, spent his time studying how people combine information to form positive or negative judgments. He is given credit for developing Information Integration Theory. He found that when people combine information to form a judgment, they don’t add–they average.
Efficiency is generally a motivating reward for all consumers–say, an 8 on a scale from 1 to 10. So all consumers are equally likely to choose the CFL when efficiency is the only reward offered.
Protecting the environment, however, is not a believable reward for many conservatives-say, a 2 on a scale from 1 to 10.
. The average of 8 and 2 is 5. When the environmental message was added, the combined message was less appealing to conservatives than the efficiency message alone, making them less likely to choose the CFL. That is what happened. I suspect that when the environment was mentioned as an additional reason to purchase the CFL, the type of consumers who put little faith in an environmental reward put less faith in the efficiency reward.
Protecting the environment is a believable reward for liberals; say an 8 on a scale from 1 to 10. The average of 8 and 8 is 8. Liberals should be no more likely to choose the CFL when the environmental message was added. That’s exactly what happened.
Everybody is motivated by a promise of efficiency. Liberals believe and are motivated by a promise of saving the environment. You could attempt to change what conservatives want, hoping to make them choose CFLs to save the environment. But it’s probably a waste of time. If you want to sell CFLs to everyone, efficiency is the way to go.
The Gromet et al. experiment suggests that talking about what people don’t want makes whatever you say about what they do want less persuasive. So don’t undermine your message. Talk about what your target wants and only about what your target wants.