STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
When consumers think about green products, they often face a dilemma - that car that uses less gasoline or a more efficient refrigerator tends to cost more. Buyers have to choose whether money is more important to them than public good. Now new research shows there might be a way to boost interest in these products, at least among a core group of consumers. NPR social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam is here to talk with us about that. Hi Shankar.
SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Hi Steve.
INSKEEP: What consumers?
VEDANTAM: We're talking about narcissists, Steve.
INSKEEP: Oh, a very big group of consumers. OK, go on. Go on.
VEDANTAM: Well, narcissists are a group of people you think are the least likely to go green. They are people, of course, who have an inflated sense of themselves. They constantly seek attention. I was speaking with Iman Naderi. He's a marketing professor at Fairfield University in Connecticut, and he said there was another reason to think narcissists were especially unlikely to make environmentally friendly or pro-green purchasing decisions. Here he is.
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IMAN NADERI: The other important dimension of a narcissist is lack of concern for others. So if you think about green products, you need to sacrifice your self-benefit in order to protect the society or environment. So by default, narcissists are not willing to go green.
VEDANTAM: Naderi and his co-author David Stratton (PH) realized they did have something working in their favor. Being pro-environment is now seen as socially desirable, and narcissists are all about boosting their social desirability. The question was, is there a way to use this to actually change how they buy things. So Naderi and Stratton conducted a series of experiments. Volunteers were rated on their narcissistic tendencies using a common scale that measures narcissism, and then there given choices between a regular computer and an environmentally friendly computer, a so-called green computer. Here's the catch. Some of the volunteers were asked to choose a green laptop, and some of them were asked to choose a green desktop. Here's Naderi.
NADERI: We found that narcissists tend to choose the green laptop more frequently compared to the green desktop because the green laptop is visible to their audience. It's something that they use in a social setting, to signal something else. It's a means to an end compared to the green desk top that they use at home.
INSKEEP: Oh, the laptop is an advertisement for your greenness, and you whip it out in the coffee shop or around the office or other places.
VEDANTAM: That's exactly right. Naderi and Stratton also found that narcissists were more likely to go green when they bought things in a store compared to when they bought them online. And that's, of course, because you have an audience in the store. By contrast, people who are not narcissists were consistent about their purchasing decisions. If they wanted to buy a green product, they bought the green laptop and the green desktop. If they cared more about price, they bought the regular laptop and the regular desktop, and it didn't make a difference whether they bought it in a store or online.
INSKEEP: So narcissists will not go green for themselves or for the community, but they might go green for their image.
VEDANTAM: That's exactly right. And there's something else. If you're going to use green products as a signaling device to draw attention and praise to yourself, price might also play a role. Naderi and Stratton conducted a experiment where volunteers had to choose between different kinds of backpacks. One of them was a regular backpack, and the other one was billed as being good for the earth. Here's the catch. When the green backpack was listed as cheaper than the regular backpack, the narcissist weren't interested. But when the very same backpack was listed as more expensive, the narcissists flocked in droves to buy it.
INSKEEP: Because they want to prove that they're willing to put their money on the line.
VEDANTAM: Exactly. And the more expensive the backpack, the stronger the signal you can send that they're doing something socially desirable. So there are three rules if you want to sell pro-green stuff to narcissist. Sell the products in public. Make sure the products can be used in public. And make sure you mark up the price.
INSKEEP: (Laughing) This may apply to other industries as well. Shankar, thanks very much.
VEDANTAM: Thank you, Steve.
INSKEEP: That's NPR social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam. You can find him on Twitter - @HiddenBrain. You find this program at @MorningEdition and @ NPRinskeep or here. It's NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.