Can psychology influence the way we recycle?
Updated 5:12 AM ET, Thu May 18, 2017
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(CNN)Have you ever had your name spelled wrong on a disposable cup in a coffee shop?
If you have -- and you probably have -- chances are you did not recycle that cup.
That's what a team of psychologists realized when they ran a study using cups with names spelled intentionally wrong, disguised as a juice tasting. People were significantly more likely to recycle their cup when their names were spelled correctly: 48% did, as opposed to 26% of those who had no name at all and a paltry 24% of those who had a misspell.
"We are averse to trashing something that is tied to our identity," said Jennifer Argo of the University of Alberta, one of the authors of the study, "as it would be conceptually similar to trashing a part of the self, which makes people more likely to recycle."
The whole problem
When it comes to recycling, studies show that we can be easily swayed, and small details can produce big changes in behavior.
In another study, Argo and co-author Remi Trudel of Boston University discovered that when an object loses its original shape, its chances of being recycled collapse.
A crushed can, for example, is considered damaged -- as such, it's more likely to end up in the trash can than in the recycling bin: "When items become damaged, they differ from the 'prototype' or ideal version of that product, and as a result, they are perceived as being less useful. As consumers, we tend to equate things that are useless with garbage," Argo said.
Small bits of paper also usually end up in the trash can: People are less likely to recycle them even when the total quantity of small pieces is double that of a single regular sheet.
But just ask people what the bits of paper could be useful for, and 80% of the time, they will recycle it, showing how quickly we can shift our perception.
"Things that are useful are recycled; they still serve a purpose. In fact, Coke ran a campaign shortly after our first paper on the topic, showing a crushed can and emphasizing it was still recyclable. Educating consumers through promotional techniques as well as highlighting identity would increase recycling," Argo said.
The power of influence
A big push toward recycling can come from social norms, or unwritten rules on how to behave.
In 1990, psychologist Robert Cialdini of Arizona State University and his colleagues set up an