Menus Subscribe Search

Findings

waterfall-lawn

Waterfall and palm trees in Arizona. (Photo: MaxFX/Shutterstock)

The Eco-Unfriendly Appeal of a Lush Green Lawn

• May 05, 2014 • 4:00 AM

Waterfall and palm trees in Arizona. (Photo: MaxFX/Shutterstock)

New research from Arizona finds we associate traditional, water-intensive landscaping with high social status.

What does your shrubbery say about you?

It may seem like a silly question, but newly published research suggests people infer things about homeowners by looking at their lawns and gardens. And for eco-minded policymakers who are encouraging residents of the American Southwest to opt for drought-resistant landscaping, that’s a problem.

The results of three experiments “suggest that the elements used in residential landscaping have broad symbolic and self-presentational significance,” a research team led by University of Iowa psychologist Rebecca Neel writes in the Journal of Environmental Psychology.

Specifically, lush green lawns dotted with trees and shrubs confer an aura of high social status on a household, among other positive implications. The researchers believe this association may make people hesitant to opt for natural landscapes requiring low water usage.

“When the decision maker chose high-water-use landscaping, they were seen as higher in status, sexual attractiveness, family orientation” and even religiosity.

The first experiment featured 171 students from a large university in the Southwestern U.S. Participants read a short vignette about a man, woman, or couple who moved into a home with either “typical desert landscaping with cacti and other plants,” or one with “typical grass landscaping with trees and shrubs.”

They were told that the homes were “quite similar,” so the only real decision the new homeowner had to make was the type of landscaping. They then rated the person or couple on a variety of characteristics.

“When the decision maker chose high-water-use landscaping,” the researchers write, “they were seen as higher in status, sexual attractiveness, family orientation” and even religiosity. All in all, such people were seen as higher in status as their counterparts with the low-water landscaping.

A second study, featuring 376 university students, added another variable to the mix. Participants read the same scenario and made the same evaluations, but some were told the homes were in a middle-class neighborhood, while others read that they were in a working-class or upper-class area.

Across the board, those choosing traditional landscapes were similarly judged as higher in status.

A final study was conducted online, via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. Fifty-three people from California, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas completed a survey in which they reported which type of landscaping they would choose “if they were trying to convey a specific trait.” Traits included conscientiousness, environmentalism, family orientation, political ideology, masculinity, femininity, religiousness, and youthfulness.

Confirming the results of the first two experiments, “high-water landscapes were selected to communicate higher social status, a more positive general impression, family orientation, political conservatism, femininity, religiousness, youthfulness, agreeableness, extraversion and prosociality,” the researchers write. The low-water option did convey one positive quality (the expected one): environmentalism.

It all suggests that “self-presentational considerations may thus constitute a barrier to the adoption of low-water-use landscapes,” the researchers conclude.

With much of the Western U.S. suffering from a long-term drought, encouraging water conservation is a vital public policy goal; this research provides valuable evidence of one major obstacle toward achieving it. For low-water landscaping to really catch on, it may be necessary to change public perceptions, so that the choice signals affluence and importance.

Is it time for high-end nurseries to start selling designer cacti?

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

July 24 • 8:00 AM

Newton’s Needle: On Scientific Self-Experimentation

It is all too easy to treat science as a platform that allows the observer to hover over the messiness of life, unobserved and untouched. But by remembering the role of the body in science, perhaps we humanize it as well.


July 24 • 6:00 AM

Commercializing the Counterculture: How the Summer Music Festival Went Mainstream

With painted Volkswagen buses, talk of “free love,” and other reminders of the Woodstock era replaced by advertising and corporate sponsorships, hippie culture may be dying, but a new subculture—a sort of purgatory between hipster and hippie—is on the rise.


July 24 • 5:00 AM

In Praise of Our Short Attention Spans

Maybe there’s a good reason why it seems like there’s been a decline in our our ability to concentrate for a prolonged period of time.


July 24 • 4:00 AM

How Stereotypes Take Shape

New research from Scotland finds they’re an unfortunate product of the way we process and share information.


July 23 • 4:00 PM

Who Doesn’t Like Atheists?

The Pew Research Center asked Americans of varying religious affiliations how they felt about each other.


July 23 • 2:00 PM

We Need to Start Tracking Patient Harm and Medical Mistakes Now

Top patient-safety experts call on Congress to step in and, among other steps, give the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wider responsibility for measuring medical mistakes.


July 23 • 12:19 PM

How a CEO’s Fiery Battle Speeches Can Shape Ethical Behavior

CEO war speech might inspire ethical decisions internally and unethical ones among competing companies.


July 23 • 12:00 PM

Why Do We Love the ‘Kim Kardashian: Hollywood’ Game?

It’s easy enough to turn yourself into a virtual celebrity, complete with fame and mansions—but it will likely cost you.


July 23 • 11:49 AM

Modern Technology Still Doesn’t Protect Americans From Deadly Landslides

No landslide monitoring or warning systems are being used to protect vulnerable communities.


July 23 • 10:00 AM

Outing the Death-Drug Distributors

Calling all hackers: It’s time to go Assange on capital punishment.


July 23 • 8:00 AM

The Surprising Appeal of Products That Require Effort to Use

New research finds they enable consumers to re-establish a feeling that they’re in control of their lives.



July 23 • 6:00 AM

How the Other Half Lifts: What Your Workout Says About Your Social Class

Why can’t triathletes and weightlifters get along?


July 23 • 5:02 AM

Battle of the Public Intellectuals: Edward Glaeser vs. Richard Florida

On gentrification and housing costs.


July 23 • 4:00 AM

Our Fear of Immigrants

Why did a group of fourth graders rally in support of an undocumented classmate while the citizens of Murrieta, California, tried to stop immigrant children from entering their town?


July 22 • 4:00 PM

Can Meditation Really Slow Aging?

Is there real science in the spiritualism of meditation? Jo Marchant meets a Nobel Prize-winner who thinks so.



July 22 • 2:00 PM

The Alabama Judge Who Refuses to Let Desegregation Orders Go Ignored

A federal judge in Alabama says a local school board has failed to meet legal mandate to integrate.


July 22 • 12:00 PM

On the Destinations of Species

It’s almost always easier to cross international borders if you’re something other than human.


July 22 • 10:51 AM

The Link Between Carbs, Gut Microbes, and Colon Cancer

Reduced carb intake among mice protected them from colon cancer.


July 22 • 10:47 AM

Irrational Choice Theory: The LeBron James Migration From Miami to Cleveland

Return migrants to Cleveland have been coming home in large numbers for quite some time. It makes perfect sense.


July 22 • 9:32 AM

This Time, Scalia Was Right

President Obama’s recess appointments were wrong and, worse, dangerous.


July 22 • 8:00 AM

On Vegas Strip, Blackjack Rule Change Is Sleight of Hand

Casino operators are changing blackjack payouts to give the house an even greater advantage. Is this a sign that Vegas is on its way back from the recession, or that the Strip’s biggest players are trying to squeeze some more cash out of visitors before the well runs dry?


July 22 • 6:00 AM

Label Me Confused

How the words on a bag of food create more questions than answers.


July 22 • 5:07 AM

Doubly Victimized: The Shocking Prevalence of Violence Against Homeless Women

An especially vulnerable population is surveyed by researchers.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

How a CEO’s Fiery Battle Speeches Can Shape Ethical Behavior

CEO war speech might inspire ethical decisions internally and unethical ones among competing companies.

Modern Technology Still Doesn’t Protect Americans From Deadly Landslides

No landslide monitoring or warning systems are being used to protect vulnerable communities.

The Link Between Carbs, Gut Microbes, and Colon Cancer

Reduced carb intake among mice protected them from colon cancer.

The New Weapon Against Disease-Spreading Insects Is Big Data

Computer models that pinpoint the likely locations of mosquitoes and tsetse flies are helping officials target vector control efforts.

People Are Clueless About Placebos

Doctors know that sometimes the best medicine is no medicine at all. But how do patients feel about getting duped into recovery?

The Big One

Today, the United States produces less than two percent of the clothing purchased by Americans. In 1990, it produced nearly 50 percent. July/August 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.