Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


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

October 23 • 4:00 AM

Musicians Are Better Multitaskers

New research from Canada finds trained musicians more efficiently switch from one mental task to another.


October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?


October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


October 22 • 4:00 AM

For Preschoolers, Spite and Smarts Go Together

New research from Germany finds greater cognitive skills are associated with more spiteful behavior in children.


October 21 • 4:00 PM

Why the Number of Reported Sexual Offenses Is Skyrocketing at Occidental College

When you make it easier to report assault, people will come forward.


October 21 • 2:00 PM

Private Donors Are Supplying Spy Gear to Cops Across the Country Without Any Oversight

There’s little public scrutiny when private donors pay to give police controversial technology and weapons. Sometimes, companies are donors to the same foundations that purchase their products for police.


October 21 • 12:00 PM

How Clever Do You Think Your Dog Is?

Maybe as smart as a four-year-old child?


October 21 • 10:00 AM

Converting the Climate Change Non-Believers

When hard science isn’t enough, what can be done?



October 21 • 8:00 AM

Education Policy Is Stuck in the Manufacturing Age

Refining our policies and teaching social and emotional skills will help us to generate sustained prosperity.


October 21 • 7:13 AM

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you’ve (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.


October 21 • 6:00 AM

Fruits and Vegetables Are About to Enter a Flavor Renaissance

Chefs are teaming up with plant breeders to revitalize bland produce with robust flavors and exotic beauty—qualities long neglected by industrial agriculture.


October 21 • 4:00 AM

She’s Cheating on Him, You Can Tell Just by Watching Them

New research suggests telltale signs of infidelity emerge even in a three- to five-minute video.


October 21 • 2:00 AM

Cheating Demographic Doom: Pittsburgh Exceptionalism and Japan’s Surprising Economic Resilience

Don’t judge a metro or a nation-state by its population numbers.


October 20 • 4:00 PM

The Bird Hat Craze That Sparked a Preservation Movement

How a fashion statement at the turn of the 19th century led to the creation of the first Audubon societies.


October 20 • 2:00 PM

The Risk of Getting Killed by the Police If You Are White, and If You Are Black

An analysis of killings by police shows outsize risk for young black males.


October 20 • 12:00 PM

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they’re motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.


October 20 • 11:00 AM

My Dog Comes First: The Importance of Pets to Homeless Youth

Dogs and cats have both advantages and disadvantages for street-involved youth.


October 20 • 10:00 AM

Homophobia Is Not a Thing of the Past

Despite growing support for LGBT rights and recent decisions from the Supreme Court regarding the legality of same-sex marriage, the battle for acceptance has not yet been decided.


October 20 • 8:00 AM

Big Boobs Matter Most

Medical mnemonics are often scandalous and sexist, but they help the student to both remember important facts and cope with challenging new experiences.


Follow us


My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

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