Marketing approach plays on instinct

What motivates your "best self?"

Educators believe "modeling" is important. We're often more motivated to take control of our tendency to overeat if the doctor talking to us about weight loss appears fit. We listen more attentively to the disease management approaches used by people who cope well with their own diagnoses of arthritis or diabetes.

Or try this. If you hang around cranky, less-than-positive people, your "best self" will have a hard time surfacing. Smiling souls have the opposite effect.

As reported in a recent issue of The Atlantic Monthly, a professor (Robert Cialdini) at Arizona State University did a study of behavior change. The research involved those hotel-bathroom placards that encourage you to help the environment by reusing towels. There were four types of signs involved. The first type had the message we probably see most often: "do it for the environment." The second approach asked the guest to "cooperate with the hotel" and "be a partner in the cause." Each of the signs had some effect.

The third sign indicated the majority of guests in the hotel reused towels at least once during their stay. That particular sign had more impact than the preceding two. The placard that was most effective said it much more specifically. It stated the majority of guests "in this room" had reused their towels.

Caildini theorizes the same instinct that drives birds to fly in a flock prompts us to align affirmatively with "peer information." He and his colleagues intend to apply the approach to energy consumption. If it works, it might mean you and I will get little smiley faces on our utility bills saying, "This month, you used 42 percent less electricity than your next-door neighbor."

(That would definitely lay interesting groundwork for discussions at the next neighborhood BBQ, don't you think?)

Well-delivered peer information coupled with positive modeling can be powerful. It can re-direct an embedded habit; alter something you've been doing in a certain way for years. Let me give you a vivid personal example.

I was in an airport recently waiting in line to use the single available bathroom. The line was three people deep. The woman behind me was brushing her teeth. Yes, she was standing in a line outside the bathroom of this busy little airport with her toothbrush in her mouth, scrubbing away at her teeth and gums. Minutes passed. Scrub-scrub, up, down and around. The bathroom door opened in front of me — I turned around toward this woman, indicating she was welcome to go ahead of me in order to finish her tooth brushing. She responded (toothbrush still in her mouth) with "nuumph nethessary, sthill bruffing."

I thought of her the next morning and have every morning and evening since — as I brush my own teeth. I feel sure of her impact on me — I will ever-after brush longer than in the past. (I'm told most dentists recommend three to four minutes of focused brushing).

By the way, I saw that same young woman in the airport waiting area later — she had a great smile "¦ I smiled back.

Sharon Johnson is an associate professor in health and human sciences at Oregon State University and on the faculty of the OSU Extension. E-mail her at or call 776-7371, Ext. 210.

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