A series of experiments in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Vol. 98, No. 3), by University of Minnesota evolutionary psychologist Vladas Griskevicius, PhD, and colleagues, have found that tapping people’s desire for social status motivates them to purchase products that benefit the planet. But behind closed doors, we’re more likely to invest in products that are self-indulgent, and not necessarily earth-friendly.

In one experiment, undergraduates read one of two short stories: the control condition story and one designed to prime the students to desire prestige by having them imagine they are starting a job at a company with a swank lobby. They are also told they will be competing with two other employees to move up the corporate ladder. Participants then choose which of two equally priced cars, household cleaners or dishwashers they would purchase — a more eco-friendly option or a non-green option that had more desirable features. Researchers found that the people who read the status-evoking story were one-and-a-half times more likely to pick the green product than the luxury product.

In another experiment, however, researchers asked participants to imagine they were shopping and to select between green and non-green products, such as a backpack, batteries and a lamp. Those who read the status-related story were more likely to select eco-friendly products when shopping in public. But when they bought items privately online, they were more likely to buy the more self-indulgent, non-green products — such as a more stylish backpack with water-resistant coating and eight different compartments — researchers say.

The findings suggest that — even in tough economic times — our desire to keep up with the Joneses still exists, Griskevicius says, but that being green might be the new status symbol.

Environmental product marketers and green energy advocates can benefit from these social motives by making pro-environmental products and behaviors even more visible and distinct, and by adding an element of competition — to see who can be the greenest on the block, for instance.

The study also provides further insight on why people make sacrifices that benefit strangers, or in this case, the environment.

—A. Novotney