Harnessing Competition and Imitation for Greener Outcomes

By Bonnie J. Wallace

Some academic researchers believe that the excessive consumption threatening our planet finds its roots in “people’s innate desire for status that improves reproductive opportunities.” They provide evidence that this tendency is neither a product of Western culture, capitalism, or advertising, but reaches back to ancient Egypt, feudal Europe, and Amazon tribes etc. (See The Evolutionary Bases for Sustainable Behavior: Implications for Marketing, Policy, and Social Entrepreneurship).

The overall strategic takeaway from accounting for the human desire for relative status is that requesting that people be content with their current status, or worse, lower their status, is very unlikely to succeed. Instead, they offer several ways that are likely to work with this drive and produce greener behavioral choices. Competitive altruism and imitation are two impulses that can be effectively used for green marketing purposes.

Competitive altruism suggests that people can be motivated to act in ways that support the environment if their actions are visible to others, and thus support their relative status. For example, sales on the Toyota Prius, a car that visibly broadcasts its owner’s green cred, remained nearly flat between 2005 and 2006, despite the introduction of significant U.S. pro-environmental tax credits for 2006. However, 2007 Prius sales increased by 68.9% over 2006 sales, coinciding with expiration of its tax credits, further bolstering the theory that not only did the tax credit not boost sales, but that the higher price increased its desirability as a status signal, communicating the driver’s level of commitment to being environmentally responsible. This is not to imply that tax credits don’t work as motivators, particularly in the absence of visible indicators of competitive altruism. It may suggest that the desire for relative status is more powerful than the desire to save money, however.

Imitation—or unconsciously copying the behavior of others—is an adaptive trait that saves us from the cost of individually learning everything through trial and error. Because this strong inclination toward mimicry is much more powerful than any “should,” if people can be persuaded that many others are following the desired behavior, they are more likely to follow suit. This strategy has been employed successfully to increase rates of recycling, decrease littering, and energy use.

The key to effective messaging is framing the statistics to emphasize the large number of people engaging in the desired behavior, even if they are still a true minority. The authors suggest the example of reframing a carpool statistic from relative numbers “(‘5% of city residents carpool each week’ to absolute numbers ‘more than 250,000 city residents carpool each week!’).” Speaking for myself, 5% seems unimpressive, and 250k seems incredibly impressive.

While it may not be big news that the human impulse toward competition and imitation is a strong driver for destructive behavior, I find evidence for its evolutionary basis to be compelling. A little tweaking of marketing efforts can use those impulses to create greener, more constructive outcomes.


Bonnie J. Wallace is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles, specializing in responsible business. She holds a Sustainable MBA from Bainbridge Graduate Institute as well as a strong belief in business as a tool for transformation. When she’s not writing, Bonnie enjoys exploring ways that art can create community, and performing her supporting role as a stage mom.

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