Dish washing: Choosing pro-environmental vs. quick and easy behaviors

Michel Handgraaf, Troy Simpson

Energy conservation is an important pro-environmental behavior. One frequently used approach to changing human decision tendencies is the provision of rewards for desired behavior. In our current line of studies we focus on environmental decision making and decisions about energy consumption in particular. A recent surge of studies has shown that financial incentives may have unexpected side effects (e.g., Bowles, 2008) that diminish their effectiveness. We argue that the disadvantages that come with the use of monetary rewards may be overcome if more socially relevant rewards are used in their place.

To investigate this, we previously ran a field experiment in the Netherlands, in which we focused on two different aspects of rewards, namely the type of reward (monetary vs. non-monetary) and the way the reward was presented (either privately or publicly; Handgraaf, van Lidth, & Appelt, 2010). We expected that monetary rewards would have less of an effect than non-monetary ones, and that public rewards would work better than private rewards to stimulate energy-saving behavior. The results were very interesting: as expected, we found main effects of both of our manipulations: public rewards worked better than private rewards and non-monetary rewards worked better than monetary rewards. This occurred not only for motivation measures, but also, and more importantly, for actual energy saving. The current study is a lab study designed to both replicate and extend our earlier findings.

This current study is designed to test the effects of feedback, monetary rewards, and social rewards on energy conservation behavior using a computer-based dish-washing simulation. The task contrasts an easy, wasteful behavior (washing dishes all at once in a tub) with a more difficult, pro-environmental behavior (washing dishes one at a time in the sink). Replicating the previous study, we expect social rewards (i.e., a score from 1 to 5 accompanied by a compliment) to be more effective than monetary rewards (i.e., $1-5) at encouraging the pro-environmental behavior. In an extension of the previous study, we also expect feedback by itself (vs. no feedback) to have a positive effect on pro-environmental behavior.


Broader Impacts

  • The ultimate aim of our research is to help policy makers create effective policies for energy conservation and other related environmental issues. It is important to investigate potential detrimental effects of economic rather than social or normative stimulation of environmental behavior, since economic arguments and rewards are frequently used to stimulate environmentally friendly behavior. These policies may be improved upon if research shows that different types of motivations or even mere feedback are more effective in the long run.


CRED2 Award (2010-2015): Funding was provided under the cooperative agreement NSF SES-0951516 awarded to the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions.