Bath towels, boomerangs and the science of influence

Can I ask a personal question? Remember the last time you stayed in a nice hotel for the weekend. Did you reuse your towels or get clean ones each day?

I ask because very few of us seem to take heed of the little cards in hotel bathrooms pleading with us to help save the environment by using our towels more than once. The cards are a good example of a form of communication designed to influence our behaviour that isn’t working.

In fact, there’s some evidence those cards aren’t just ineffective, they are counter-productive. They often cause a boomerang, an outcome exactly counter to the intended response.

For example, less than half (47%) of the UK public believe they are asked to reuse bath towels because hotels want to protect the environment. Interestingly, about the same number (44%) say it’s because hotels want to save money. So if we think the only beneficiary from our environmental actions are company shareholders, it may actually encourage us to enjoy their lovely clean towels some more.

The boomerang effect is more common than you might think.

• A US study of high school students discovered that many federal-funded public service adverts designed to reduce illegal drug use were actually encouraging it.

• Researchers from the University of Kansas have demonstrated that the more demanding the anti-litter messaging, the less litter was deposited in bins.

• French academics have shown that health reminders on unhealthy products can result in fewer people viewing the products as bad and lead to a drop in respondents choosing healthy snacks as a result.

What is going on? How can our messages cause the opposite effect? And how do we create communications that avoid a negative boomerang?

We have done lots of studies for clients focused on how best to influence behaviour, from testing messages to shift voters in election campaigns, to helping to persuade people to drink alcohol within healthy limits.

There are three important ways to help avoid boomerangs and encourage a positive shift in behaviour.

The first step is genuinely to start with your audiences. Most behaviour change campaigns begin with what the organisation running it wants to see happen. In contrast, effective campaigns start not with the organisation’s view but the audience’s: what is it that they believe, what do they know about the issue and what do they want to change? It’s often possible to find areas of overlap between the views of the audience and those trying to influence their opinion. Uncovering these areas of shared interest is the key.

As an example, piracy has been the Achilles’ heel of the music industry for many years. The industry wanted people to stop using pirate sites and at various times it tried to tackle the problem through legal routes – threatening prosecution and the like. However, a deeper look into their audiences’ motives revealed it was access to content and flexibility of format, not just cost, that were driving behaviours. This meant the best solution to tackle music copyright theft was not just limiting access to content on illegal sites but giving consumers more flexible access to content through legal ones.

The second step is to frame your action in a way that increases the freedom and choice for the individual, rather than attempting to limit them. Academics have proven something every parent of teenagers already knows – people don’t like to be told what to do. We want to make up our own mind. Messaging aimed too overtly at restricting bad choices can result in an opposite effect. Psychologists call it the Reactance Theory: a perceived limiting of our choice often results in an attempt to reassert it.

For example, most health messaging approaches the task of reducing obesity from the perspective of what we shouldn’t be doing – ‘don’t eat this’, ‘reduce intake of that’, etc. Rarely do health messages give us a choice, nor do they explain how healthier lifestyles can increase our opportunities more generally – enjoying life more to the full, worrying less about ill-health, achieving some life goals that had seemed impossible. Framing health messages in a way that increases freedom and choice, rather than diminishes it, is one way to avoid the boomerang.

Finally, behaviour change communications work best when they go with the flow, not against it. Social and cultural norms have a very powerful influence over behaviour and so arguing directly against a norm is unlikely to produce good results.

For example, it’s commonplace in the UK for people to drive faster than the speed limit on motorways. Only 4 in 10 think it’s dangerous to drive at 90 mph on an empty motorway. In these circumstances, simply telling people to abide by the rules and drive at 70 mph is not likely to work.

To create effective communications, you need social norms to be your friend, not your enemy. For one thing, social norms are often competing and contradictory. The social norm which sees speeding on motorways as acceptable sits uneasily alongside the deep-rooted desire to protect our loved ones or our widely-held belief that it is wrong to cause the death of others through reckless behaviour. The key is therefore to build an argument in a way that promotes certain social beliefs and asks people to place these as higher priorities to others.

Back to bathroom towels. What if, rather than just appealing to the good of the environment, the card said that 75% of your fellow guests are helping in the resource saving programme by reusing their towels? A group of US academics tested just this idea and introducing this social norm resulted in a 48% towel reuse rate, about 10 points higher than for the environmental message.

The science of influencing behaviours may be complex but with smart insights, it’s possible to build effective messages that shift the needle.

The most successful campaigns are those that truly listen to their audiences, tap into a hidden belief or latent desire, demonstrate how actions will help to bring this belief to life and how this chimes with the views of people they like and respect.

More effective behaviour change campaigns are much needed on everything from drug abuse and diet to speeding, not to mention their use in brand and political campaigns. And for the sake of the environment, as well as thousands of hard-working hotel cleaners, let’s hope the hotel chains get it right too.