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A ski resort in the Alps. (Photo: Public Domain)

How Can Hotels Get People to Reuse Dirty Towels?

• March 24, 2014 • 3:46 PM

A ski resort in the Alps. (Photo: Public Domain)

When it comes to driving pro-environmental behavior, provincial norms are the most effective.

In the inner sanctum of a palatial luxury hotel with sweeping panoramas of the Alps, guests may be prone to embracing the gluttony of their royal alter-ego. After an arduous day on the slopes, relaxation may come in the form of swilling a giant bottle of Dom Perignon and enjoying the warmth of an unending shower. And really, why stop there?

A shared rare trait produces a stronger sense of association and a higher likelihood of conforming to social norms.

A neatly folded and fresh towel seems preferable to the one left on the floor, and the only reasonable way to keep the gluttony consistent. In fact, why not take it to the height of raffish effrontery by taking multiple showers a day and flinging each successive towel into a different corner of the room. Besides, new ones will be waiting soon enough.

Though towel usage may not be this dramatic, it’s definitely a problem. The amount of water and detergent used to wash them has become wasteful enough to compel many hotels to leave out placards begging guests to get in touch with their environmental soul. Is this kind of messaging effective? Would it be more effective if institutions directly referenced how other guests were behaving?

In the most recent issue of the Journal of Social Psychology, Gerhard Reese and his colleagues at the University of Luxembourg published a study of how social norms affected the towel reuse of 132 guests at two alpine resorts. With full participation from hotel staffs, guests were randomly assigned to three different towel reuse messages, each placed near the sink of the bathroom.

In the standard condition, the message focused on the importance of environmental protection without referring to any descriptive, normative information. In the hotel condition, the message focused on the behavior of fellow guests of the hotel, saying that “75 % of guests in this hotel usually use their towels more than once.” Finally, in the room condition, the message focused on the behavior of fellow guests of the room, saying that “75 % of guests in this room usually use their towels more than once.”

The hotel cleaning staff subsequently recorded the number of towels used each day. The people who were told that those who stayed in that same room (the “provincial norm” which registers with “immediate situational circumstances”) before them reused towels were the most likely to heed the request and, on average, used about 1.05 towels a day, per person. The reference to what others were doing in the hotel (the “global norm”) and the more general call-to-action were not nearly as effective. A 2008 paper from the U.S. showed the provincial condition was the most effective as well.

Why are people more likely to be influenced by the provincial rather than global social norms? The earlier paper speculated on the psychological potency of sharing a rare characteristic, even something as seemingly unimportant as a room, with someone else. A shared rare trait produces a stronger sense of association and a higher likelihood of conforming to social norms.

Suggested hotel towel card revision: “99.9% of guests in this room aren’t soulless towel gluttons.”

Ryan Jacobs
Associate Digital Editor Ryan Jacobs joined Pacific Standard from The Atlantic, where he wrote for and produced the magazine’s Global and China channels online. Before that, he was a senior editorial fellow at Mother Jones. Follow him on Twitter @Ryanj899.

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