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Throwing in the towel :
Take a look at the 4 messaes below

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1.  HELP SAVE THE ENVIRONMENT


You can show your respect for nature and help save the environment by reusing your towels during your stay.

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4.  JOIN YOUR FELLOW GUESTS IN HELPING TO SAVE THE ENVIRONMENT

Almost 75% of guests who are asked to participate in our new resource savings program do help by using their towels more than once. You can join your fellow guests to help save the environment by reusing your towels during your stay.

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2.  PARTNER WITH US TO HELP SAVE THE ENVIRONMENT

In exchange for your participation in this program, we at the hotel will donate a percentage of the energy savings to a nonprofit environmental protection organization. The environment deserves our combined efforts. You can join us by reusing your towels during your stay.

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3.  WE’RE DOING OUR PART FOR THE ENVIRONMENT. CAN WE COUNT ON YOU?
Because we are committed to preserving the environment, we have made a financial contribution to a nonprofit environmental protection organization on behalf of the hotel and its guests. If you would like to help us in recovering the expense, while conserving natural resources, please reuse your towels during your stay.

Washing and drying towels require a lot of electricity and water, which is harmful to the planet and costly for the hotel. Besides, most of us do not wash our towels after a single-use. 

So how can guests be convinced to re-use their towels? Robert Cialdini and Noah Goldstein tested 4 different messages to find out. Before you scroll down further for the answer, do make a guess. 

Ok here comes the answers

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The results should come as no surprise. Even for something as important and major as saving the planet, context matters more than content:

  • Signs 1 and 2, premised on the content (i.e. saving the planet is very important) fare less well

  • Signs 3 and 4, premised on the context (i.e. others are already doing so, wouldn't you want to do so as well?) fare better.

  • Put another way, from this experiment, 36% of hotel guests care significantly about the environment. They would have re-used their towels with no or a simple reminder. 

  • However, to convince the next level of guests to do the same, the content is insufficient. It requires the message to carry something that appeals to a more instinctive reaction of our brain - social conformity. What others are doing act as a simple but convincing heuristic for us to follow. We do not want to look out of place. 

  • Most interesting is the difference between signs 2 and 3 - both involve a contribution to non-profit organisations, so why did 3 do better than 2?  The reason lies with another instinctive inclination - reciprocity. In message 3, the contribution to the non-profit has already been done, and the invite if for the guest to do the same. The order is reversed in message 2 - the guest has to first take action before a contribution will be made. 

  • The order of the message really matters. If someone offers you cooperation provided you perform a favour first, the sense of acceptability and social obligation is much less. However, when someone has done something already for you, and then asks for a favour in return, there is a greater sense of social obligation.
     

We often assume (or want to believe) that everything we do is for a conscious, rational reason. But all 4 messages are about saving the environment; this doesn't change regardless of the message. Yet the results are different simply from the words chosen and the order in which they are presented.

This shows us 2 things:
1) B
ehaviour is often subconscious and instinctive; the reason why we do certain things might only be formulated after we do something, to explain why we did it. This is as opposed to what is commonly believed, that before we act, we think through reasons why we should or should not do something.

2) Language taking into account social influences shapes behaviour.  

Read more in our series on:

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