Climate & Sustainability

How Do You Encourage Recycling?

A social scientist says the key may be in the messaging.

April 20, 2012

| by Marguerite Rigoglioso

Recycling programs abound, but people are often lackadaisical about putting plastic, paper, glass, and metal into those bins. How can we get more people to recycle? An intervention recently conducted in Canada is pointing the way, and the message is all about … well, the messaging.

At a briefing on “The Science of Getting People to Do Good,” held on March 30 at Stanford GSB, marketing professor Kate White of the University of British Columbia shared studies that looked at two kinds of messages: those that highlight the negative consequences of not recycling — what psychologists call a “loss-framed message” — versus those that emphasize the positive consequences of recycling — a “gain-framed message.” The question, she said, was which would be more effective in getting people to bring their recycling to the curb — telling people that not doing it would cause so many tons of pollution, or that succeeding in recycling would save the same amount of pollution?

To find out, researchers prepared different door hangers about recycling — some with loss- and some with gain-framed, or more positive messages. On the reverse side of some of each, they listed concrete steps for how to recycle, including specifics about the type of items and the time and place to put the material for pickup. On the reverse side of others, they asked people to think more abstractly about why recycling contributed to the community, air, land, and water resources.

After monitoring the change in recycling quantity, the researchers concluded that urgent, negative information — loss—framed messages — worked best to motivate people to action when clear instructions for recycling were presented. “Feel good” messages about what recycling accomplishes also worked when they were matched with statements about why recycling is important more generally.

“Matching the content of the messaging makes it easier for people to understand what to do — and therefore more likely they will do it,” White explained. The effect held even six months later.

In another study, she said, people expressed more willingness to recycle in the present in response to loss-framed messages, whereas they showed more willingness to recycle in the future in response to gain frames. The results demonstrated that to get people to act now, emphasizing the urgency of the problem is most effective; to get them to act in the future, having them think about the positive benefits of their actions works best.

Other studies at the conference looked at how to close the achievement gap in schools with just simple self-esteem building interventions, how to encourage people to lose weight and improve their health, and how to get people to vote.

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