Commitments, Towels, and “Two for One” Influence

Posted by Jason Petzke | Aug 23, 2012 3:56:56 AM

by Steve Martin, August 2012

Inside Influence Report regulars as well as readers of the book Yes! will be familiar with the wonderful series of studies conducted by Noah Goldstein, Vlad Griskevicius and Robert Cialdini examining which messages are most effective at persuading hotel guests to reuse their towels during a stay. (For those who aren’t, towel reuse rose by 26% when hotel guests were told, via a little card placed in bathrooms, that the majority of previous guests do reuse their towels).

These experiments have been widely cited in the academic, business and popular press and so when presenting them in talks and workshops I will occasionally encounter folks who are already aware of them. When that happens I might ask the group to think about how other principles of influence might be employed to encourage towel reuse. For example what would happen if a guest was asked to make a commitment to support environmental efforts before they had even reached their room, such as during the check in process?

This has always struck me as an interesting idea but to date there has been no empirical data measuring such an approach. Until now!

Researchers have been recently testing this exact idea and although the studies won’t be published until next year, Inside Influence Report readers can be amongst the first to learn about the results as well as implications they might have for your future influence attempts.

Click here to read more

Over a one month period a team of researchers from the University of California arranged for guests checking-in to a popular Californian hotel to be asked to make a commitment related to environmental protection.

In some instances the commitment requested was a general one; please check this box indicating your willingness to be environmentally protective during your stay. In other instances the commitment requested was a more specific one; please check this box indicating your willingness to reuse your towels during your stay.

In addition to asking for either a general or a specific commitment some guests were also given a ‘Friend of the Earth’ pin badge. These badges were also given to a number of other guests who had not been asked to make a commitment when they checked into the hotel to test whether simply being given a badge to wear would influence their behavior.

Finally a control group of guests were simply checked-in in the normal fashion and were not given a pin badge or asked to make a commitment.

So what happened?

Well the first thing that the study looked at was the percentage of guests who were actually willing to make a commitment and it turned out to be pretty high. Some 98% of guests in the general commitment group were willing to make a commitment, and even though the number of guests willing to make a more specific commitment was lower, it was still impressive with 83% checking the box. So at first glance, it seems that when attempting to persuade an individual to make a commitment, you might increase your chances of success by asking them to make a general rather than a more specific commitment.

Of course that begs another question. Which commitments are more likely to be lived up to; general commitments or specific ones?

As far as this study is concerned there was a clear answer. Guests who made a specific commitment at check-in were more likely to reuse their towels than the guests who made a general commitment (66% v 61%). Perhaps more interesting was the finding that guests who did make specific commitments to reuse their towels were also more likely to adopt other environmentally protective behaviors that were consistent with that initial commitment. For example they were more likely to turn off the lights, turn down the air conditioner unit and switch off the TV when leaving their room.

This latter finding might be an especially important insight to those of us who have the challenge of influencing multiple related behavior changes in others, highlighting a potential two-step approach. Step one will be to ensure that the initial commitment you seek is a specific one. Step two will be to arrange for the environment where that commitment will be enacted to include cues that could trigger other related and desirable behaviors consistent with that initial specific commitment.

Let’s take an example. Imagine that as the manager of an office facility you have the challenge of not only encouraging more recycling but also to reduce your general energy costs. This finding suggests that you should first ask office workers to make a specific commitment to one behavior (let’s say to place paper in the recycling bin as they leave the office at night) and then position those recycling bins in a place that could activate related behaviors that will reduce energy costs (let’s say next to a light switch). In essence a “two outcomes for the price of one request” influence strategy.

And what of those pin badges? Well as you might expect, guests who made a commitment and who were also given a badge were even more likely to reuse their towels than those that had just made commitments. They were also the most likely to engage in other environmentally protective behaviors while staying in the hotel suggesting that the little badge serves two important purposes. First it serves as a reminder to the individual of the commitment they have made. Secondly it serves as a signal to others of that commitment.

Interestingly the guests who were provided with a pin badge but were not asked to make a commitment were the least likely of all to reuse their towels. They were even less likely to reuse their towels than guests who weren’t part of the study at all.

This is consistent with Cialdini’s research showing in order for commitments to stand the best chance of being lived up to they need to be owned by the person making them, as well as being action-orientated and public. Accordingly, when persuading others to live up to their commitments a detective of influence will make arrangements for those commitments to be volunteered as well as stated specifically before providing ways for their target to publicly signal them too.

Of course it is rare for a business to encounter solely external influence challenges such as persuading customers and clients. Invariably some challenges businesses face will be internal, for example persuading employees and associates to change their behavior.

This was certainly the case with the hotel in this study whose housekeeping staff would often replace towels even if guests had indicated that they wished to reuse them. But perhaps the best strategy to persuade housekeeping staff to comply with appropriate towel replacement is exactly the same as one used to persuade guests to comply with appropriate towel reuse. Namely to gain a specific commitment and then provide a way of publicizing that commitment. An example of a ‘two for one’ influence strategy.


If you were a hotel manager how might you effectively and ethically employ any of the principles of influence to encourage towel reuse? (I can’t promise but maybe we’ll end up studying some of the best suggestions!)


Baca-Motes, K., Brown, A., Gneezy, A., Keenan, E.A., & Nelson, L.D. Commitment and Behavior Change: Evidence for the Field. Journal of Consumer Research DOI: 10.1086/667226 (forthcoming)

Cialdini, R.B., Influence – Science and Practice 5th Edition ( 2009) Allyn & Bacon. New York

Goldstein, N.J., Cialdini, R.B., & Griskevicius, V. (2008). A Room with a Viewpoint: Using Social Norms to Motivate Environmental Conservation in Hotels. Journal of Consumer Research Vol 35: 3, pages 472-482


*And for those of you wanting even more information…..

The Goldstein, Cialdini, and Griskevicius article referred to by Seve Martin above is A Room With A Viewpoint.

The Journal of Consumenr Psychology awarded this article the best paper of the year. And recently Emerald Reviews awarded this paper the Citation of Excellence for 2012 saying, “A Room With a Viewpoint: using social norms to motivate environmental conservation in hotels” (Journal of Consumer Research, 2008) was chosen because of its proven impact since its publication date (2008 in this case, to allow for citation impact to be accurately measured) from the top 300 management journals in the world.

Hooray for Science!

Topics: Inside Influence Report