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
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.