It’s Not Easy Seeing Green

Chris Mooney reviews research suggesting that “we tend to focus far too much on outward symbols (like Prius driving) in judging whether people are energy conscious. As a result, these powerful symbols bias us into overrating certain kinds of seemingly green behavior, and underrating other behaviors that may be quite green, but don’t seem that way to us at first glance”:

[R]esearchers showed as much with a pretty unforgettable research design. In one of the experiments reported in their paper, they asked Swiss research subjects to evaluate the energy consciousness of two drivers, one of whom drives a Prius, and one of whom drives an SUV. But the Prius driver drives his more fuel efficient car 28,700 km per year, and the SUV driver only drives his less fuel-efficient car 11,400 km per year, as follows:

If you carefully do the math, you’ll see that at least as the scenario is described here, there is only one possible conclusion: the Prius driver uses significantly more fuel per year. Yet overwhelmingly, when given this information, people rate the Prius driver as more energy conscious — a phenomenon that recurred across several different experimental designs. “It is something on the order of 80 or 90 percent of people who are going for the wrong answer” in one of the designs, says study author Michael Siegrist. “So it is a very large effect.”