How You Can Sabotage Your Own Good Intentions

Tuesday, 02 April, 2013 06:38Comments

By Steve Martin, CMCT

worldturnYou do your best to recycle whenever you can, right? Maybe the company you work for has a pro-environmental policy that encourages staff to use less paper and to recycle as much as possible of that which is used. It certainly wouldn't be alone. Increasing numbers of organizations, communities too, are recognizing the benefits of recycling as a way to conserve energy and natural resources and many will have policies and strategies in place to encourage it.

But could certain strategies designed to persuade people to recycle actually be counterproductive leading to an increase rather than a decrease in the use of resources? A new study suggests that, at least in certain conditions, they could. It turns out that the insights gleaned from this study don’t just have implications for your office environmental policy.

They may also have implications for your wider change initiatives too.

Influence rarely occurs in a vacuum and one possible implication of focusing attention on a single specific behavior is that it might lead to unintended, even counterproductive behaviors down the line. Behavioral scientists call this ‘licensing’ or a ‘negative spillover’ and we can probably all think of examples from our personal lives. Spending an extra ten minutes on the treadmill so that we feel a little fitter might also convince us that we have earned the right to that tasty muffin to accompany our morning coffee. Selecting the healthy salad at lunch might ‘buy’ us the right to a dessert, or a ride on the elevator instead of the stairs when returning to our desk.

april iir graphicJesse Catlin from Washington State University’s Business School, together with her colleague Yitong Wang from Tsinghua University in Beijing wondered if this ‘licensing’ effect might also occur when it came to encouraging environmentally protective behavior. For example, in an attempt to make it easier to recycle paper could providing recycling facilities actually cause people to use more paper than they ordinarily would if recycling facilities weren't available?

In order to test this idea two studies were designed. In the first study participants were told that they would be evaluating a new brand of scissors. Part of the evaluation process required them to rate how good the scissors were at cutting out shapes (such as triangles and squares) from a stack of approximately 200 sheets of plain, white paper. Half the participants tested the scissors in a room where there weren’t any recycling facilities, only a trash can. The other half completed the task in a room where recycling facilities were available in addition to a regular trash can. The participants were purposely not given any specific instructions about the sizes of the shapes or the amount of paper that they should use in the task. Instead they were simply told to dispose of any scraps in the receptacle(s) provided and then complete a ‘green attitude’ questionnaire that asked them about their beliefs and attitudes towards the environment.

The results were quite simply staggering. Participants who evaluated the pair of scissors when recycling facilities were available used nearly three times more paper than the group who didn’t have recycling facilities. Interestingly this increase in the use of resources occurred regardless of how positive the participants’ ‘green attitudes’ were as measured in the post study questionnaire.

So this first study demonstrated a clear case of licensing; the presence of paper recycling facilities caused people to use more not less paper. Now, one potential criticism of studies like these is that because they are conducted in a laboratory setting the results may not reflect what happens in the real world. So in order to test whether they could replicate their results Catlin and Wang transported their studies out of the university lab and set them a men’s restroom!

Before starting this new set of experiments they first collected data on the amount of paper hand towels used in the men’s restroom for a period of 15 days to work out the average amount of paper towels typically used each day. Once this had been done they then introduced a large recycling bin near the sinks with signs indicating that the restrooms were participating in a paper hand towel recycling program and that any used hand towels placed in the bin would be recycled. For the next 15 days they then simply measured the amount of paper hand towels used.

Consistent with their laboratory studies, paper towel usage increased after the introduction of the recycling bin by an average of 0.5 paper towels per person. At first glance this small increase doesn't seem that big a deal however, given that the restroom was typically used over a 100 times a day the increase in usage was substantial. About 12,500 paper hand towels annually for this one restroom alone. The presence of recycling facilities led to an increase not a decrease in the use of resources. And in a big way!

So what’s going on? Well one possible explanation might be to do with guilt. If people experience a feeling of guilt when consuming and disposing of products they may feel that by recycling them they can reduce any negative feelings they experience associated with over consumption. Of course that subsequent reduction in negative feeling might now ‘license’ them to consume more because their over consumption will be mitigated by recycling.

Or perhaps the availability of the recycling option serves as a simple justification cue. Maybe people are saying to themselves “Hey if it can be recycled then it probably doesn't matter if I use a little bit more.”

Regardless of the mechanism that is providing people with this ‘license’, one implication is immediately clear. When seeking to persuade people to behave in desirable ways, providing facilities that make it easy for people to do so, whilst vital, may not be enough to carry sway. Particularly in situations where there is little or no obvious cost to the user of the resource that is being consumed. This was certainly the case in the paper recycling studies and might be the case when it comes to influencing your colleagues and co-workers in the office too.

An example is in order. Imagine for a few moments that you have been ‘lucky’ enough to be volunteered as the new Green Champion in your office and you now have the not-so-enviable challenge of persuading your co-workers to use a little less paper, recycle the paper they do use and adopt some other environmentally friendly practices like turning out the lights when they leave the building. Imagine further that arrangements have been made for facilities such as recycling boxes to be strategically placed around the building and for energy efficient bulbs to be installed in the light fixtures. Knowing that these facilities, whilst essential, might also have the unintended consequence of licensing your colleagues to use more rather than fewer resources, you recognize the need to make some additional small steps to mitigate any potential licensing effects. So what might they be?

Well, the first might be to add a sign at recycling points and light switches, pointing out that whilst recycling is beneficial to the environment, using fewer resources in the first place is even more beneficial. Doing so would be consistent with emerging research that has shown that whilst the benefits of recycling are often highly salient to people, the cost of recycling is much less so.

Another potential step would be to take an insight from the consistency principle and highlight commitments that individuals may have previously made toward environmental protection. Better still you might seek small commitments from people prior to starting the program. Regular Inside Influence Report readers may recall the recent studies I wrote about in hotels where asking guests to sign a pledge when they checked into the hotel not only led to an increase in towel and linen reuse; it also caused guests to be more likely to turn off the light and TV when leaving their rooms. An example of a ‘positive spillover’ effect.

A well cited first order law of behavior change programs is to ‘make change easy for people’. These studies add a caveat. Providing facilities that make change easy for people, whilst crucial, won’t always be enough. The true detective of influence will also consider potential licensing or negative spillover effects and include steps to eliminate them within their strategies.


What examples can you recall of persuasion strategies that, at the time, seemed well considered only for an unintended consequence or negative spillover effect to occur?

How do you currently account for potential licensing effects or unintended consequences in your influence strategies?



Catlin, J., & Wang, Y. (2013). Recycling Gone Bad: When the Option to Recycle Increases Resource Consumption. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 23(1), 122–127.

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