Sunday, February 12, 2012

Conspicuous Conservation or Why Did You Buy Your Prius?

We heard an old (July 2011) Freakonomics podcast on KPPC this morning that raised a subject I've thought about when writing about biking.  Conspicuous Conservation - or people being 'green' because it's cool and wanting to be seen being cool.  It's also described as signaling theory - what we do to look good.

I think about this every time I write about biking.  Will people think I'm being a biking snob because I mention biking somewhere or even linger on the topic during a post?  I try to avoid being judgmental and I try to show understanding that biking isn't for everyone or every time, that there are legitimate reasons to drive, and weaning isn't easy.  But I'm sure some think I'm being holier than thou. 

The show focuses on Prius owners.  A pair of economics doctoral students, Allison and Steve Sexton (they're twins), have written a paper on this and take part in the podcast. 

They observed that of all the hybrid cars, the Toyota Prius looks significantly different from other Toyotas (and all other cars) whereas the other hybrid cars are hard to distinguish from the non-hybrid models.  But the Prius is by far the best selling hybrid.  Are people buying them because they stand out more?  Are they buying Priuses because it signals their conservation ethic? 

They compared Prius and Honda Civic hybrid sales and determined whether there were more sales in Democratic or Republican census blocks.  They found significantly more Priuses in Democratic areas and no statistical difference in Prius sales compared to the Honda Civic hybrid in Republican areas.  Using this, they decided that Conspicuous Conservation explains, in part, why people choose to buy a Prius.  They reason that the only real distinction between the Prius and the Honda is the Prius' distinctive look.  Cost and mileage and reliability, they say, are all relatively similar.  And you get better signaling advantage in areas where people value conservation than where people aren't favorably disposed to environmentalists. 

There's even a clip from South Park which apparently noticed this trend much earlier.  The kids realize that having a Pruis-like car is alienating them from their more conservative neighbors and the Dad says, "And that's why we're moving to San Francisco." 

An Toyota knew about signaling according to the Toyota PR person on the podcast who says that the key instruction to the Prius designers was that the car should look different. 

I'm sure this has something to do with why there are more Priuses than other hybrids.  All movements attract some people who join because it confers on them some imagined status or other symbolic benefits.  We see it very clearly in what kids wear high school. 

But there are also people who do things because it's the right thing for them and not because they want to be cool, or in other cases, just different.  A factor I didn't hear on the show is the proselytizing reason for such signalling - trying to make the odd seem more normal because so many people are doing it.  Driving a Prius - because they are so conspicuous - points out to others how many people are, in fact, driving more energy efficient vehicles.  And might cause others to 'convert.'  Hiding that by buying a car that blends in doesn't get that message across. 

You can listen to the podcast and decide for yourself.

And my posting about biking is consciously intended to remind folks that biking is doable in a lot more situations than most people think.  But, if it comes across as conspicuous conservation, then so be it.  But the point is to make people think:  I could take the bike instead of the car for this.  And maybe the point of driving a Prius is to make people think:  That guy is getting twice the gas mileage I'm getting.  


  1. I read this with interest because I am wild to get a Prius and solar on the house roof as soon as I have saved up. But "signaling" never occurred to me. I would not be put off by your mentioning biking. At ALL. Even though I could not bike.

    And I haven't ever thought about what other people looking at my roof or car would think. I don't care. My preference for a Prius is that it's plug-in, and I've had Toyotas before, and RELIABILITY is my big thing. Don't much care about the looks. I've tried to think hard about buying the Volt (for "buy American" reasons, but it's too expensive for me and not sure I trust the Chevy reliability as much).

    This issue is so much bigger than "how do I look?" I did think all along that delaying the purchase would give me better technology, but I have always been determined to buy/lease the moment I can afford it so as to give my dollar votes to this effort, to keep it growing/improving. In that sense, the "signalling" part matters to me.

    The fact that my power bills will be cheaper is a side issue for me. The fact that it's a rejection of oil-burning is the huge reason. For me.

  2. That seems to be good evidence for signaling, but the Prius does get noticeably better gas mileage than the Honda.

  3. We are on our second Prius.
    The we bought our first one, there were no others in 2006.
    When it came to buy our second, we bout another Prius because the first one was great, we had no problems with it, so why would we switch?

  4. It's funny, I have a VW Passat that is 10 years old and has 180k miles. I have done alot of performance mods to it because I enjoy working on cars, but I'm not a big racing guy.

    The net result is my Passat with a larger turbo, big intercooler, race suspension, etc. gets better mileage than my father's Prius, and it looks a hell of alot cooler too.


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