“Conspicuous Conservation” and the Prius Effect

The height of conspicuous conservation? (Photo: Toyota)

This month, Toyota sold its one millionth Prius hybrid in the U.S. In 10 years, this strange-looking vehicle with the revolutionary engine has claimed a spot among the best-selling cars. Pretty impressive. But are all those Prius owners thinking mainly about better mileage and a smaller carbon footprint, or is there another incentive at work? More broadly: when people make environmentally sound choices, how much are those choices driven by the consumers’ desire to show off their green bona fides?

Two young economists, Steve and Alison Sexton, have been looking into this question. (Not only are the Sextons twins, but their parents are also economists, and Steve is a competitive triathlete.) The result is an interesting draft paper called “Conspicuous Conservation: The Prius Effect and WTP [Willingness to Pay] for Environmental Bona Fides.” When you drive a Prius, the Sextons argue, there’s a “green halo” around you. You make new friends; you get new business opportunities. In an especially “green” place like Boulder, Colo., the effect could be worth as much as $7,000.

The Sextons focused on the distinctive design of the Prius — which was no accident. Honda, Ford, Nissan and other car makers sell hybrids, but you can’t pick them out on the road (the Civic hybrid, for instance, looks just like a Civic). The Prius is unmistakable. It marks whoever is driving it as someone who cares about the environment; it’s an act of “conspicuous conservation,” an update of Thorstein Veblen’s “conspicuous consumption.” Here’s how Steve Sexton describes it:

SEXTON: A sort of “keeping up with the Joneses”-type concept but applied to efforts to make society better. I will be competing with my neighbors to donate to a charity, for instance, or to reduce energy conservation or environmental impacts.

On Marketplace, just in time for Earth Day, Stephen Dubner talks to Kai Ryssdal about this and other forms of conspicuous conservation.

Here’s where to find Marketplace on a radio station near you.

Leave A Comment

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COMMENTS: 39


  1. YX says:

    Why drive a hybrid if you can’t show it off.

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  2. Ross Taylor says:

    Reminds me of the Psychological Science article that concluded “purchasing green products may license indulgence in self-interested and unethical behaviors.” http://pss.sagepub.com/content/early/2010/03/01/0956797610363538.full

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  3. Inkraven says:

    The Sextons could have saved themselves a lot of time by just watching the South Park episode that makes fun of hybrid owners. They didn’t call it (in the show) a Pious for nothing.

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  4. Dan says:

    Makes sense. Much of what passes as pop environmentalism is driven by image especially since the most well-known “environmental” group (Green Peace) is an attention-whore. Their shallowness inevitably rubs off on its members and supporters. That is not to say that environmentalism is bad, it’s just that it’s tainted with the sins of its biggest advocates.

    BTW, the Prius is quite expensive here in the Philippines. I could buy 2 SUVs for the price of one Prius!

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    • Gary says:

      The Prius was launched in the Philippines at a whopping Php 2.25M or approximately USD 52,000. It was launched by Toyota in the Philippines in mid 2009. Well, it’s 2011 and I swear, I have yet to see one on the road. Then again, I just may not be looking hard enough. As a business statistics analyst, I would love to get my hands on data showing how many Prius units have actually been sold in the Philippines, cross reference that with the profiles of the buyers, super number crunch it and definitely conclude if Filipinos are also subject to “conspicuous conservation” and the Prius effect. In the absence of such data, I think that I’ll just do a simple cost benefit analysis on the Prius.

      By the way, I’m still not a 100% percent sure about global warming and all of its gloom and doom especially after reading Superfreakonomics (What do Al Gore and Mt. Pinatubo Have In Common) so I think I’ll just pass on the Prius and stick with my daily diesel, smoke-belching jeepney ride. It’s cheaper . . . period.

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  5. TDG says:

    I wonder, though, how a car company can reach the iconic status that seems to justify the premium Prius buyers pay for their cars. The first generation Honda Insight was available in the US seven months before the Prius, had better milage, was cheaper, and was arguably more distinct looking with its enclosed rear wheel wells. Yet the Insight (which now looks more like a normal car, BTW) never reached the iconic status of the Prius.

    Perhaps more than merely giving the driver the status of “environmentalist,” what’s really going on is that the Prius gives the driver a broader “economic elite” status – that is both the Prius and the Insight show a concern for environmental issues, but only the Prius (which is several thousand dollars more) shows the driver’s ability to afford such a car.

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    • James says:

      Do Prius buyers really pay a premium for their cars, though? The Prius is certainly cheaper than similar-sized cars from BMW, Lexus, etc.

      I can also say, having owned one for the past 7 years, that the Honda Insight was and still is far more distinctive-looking (and more economical) than the Prius.

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  6. Randy says:

    I would politely disagree with “conspicuous conservation” as a motive, at least for us, for buying a Prius. My wife has a killer commute (70 to 100 miles daily) in Washington D.C. area traffic. Gas prices were killing us so we shopped around for the best mileage we could get and the Prius seemed to win hands down. Not only did she sharply reduce the number of times she had to fill it with gas, but each fill up cost less because the gas tank is smaller. Now she fills up 2 or sometimes 3 times in a 2 week period compared to previously when she had to fill up 2 or 3 times a week. The price and amenities of the Prius compare more or less favorably with her 2 previous vehicles: a Honda Crv and a Subaru Outback (she did give up all wheel drive with the Prius….) All in all she is very happy with the Prius and I love how it treats our gasoline budget gingerly. :p

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  7. Russell Dunkin says:

    It’s certainly true. I am approached all the time, and more so when gas prices spike. I see the opposite. I have friends that are hardcore “red state” people, and will buy Suburbans for the same reason – it screams I’M A MAN! and get’s them similar fringe benefits with that crowd.

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  8. Clancy says:

    I’m not a behavioral economist or anything related to those fields, but I’d say that 90% of opinions and decisions of 90% of people are based on fitting in and improving their status within their peer group even though they rationalize it otherwise.
    I know many Prius owners, and this certainly applies to them, but it also applies to many “anti-environmentalists” I know who conspicuously drive the largest trucks they can and brag to their buddies about how much fuel they can waste.

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    • Johnny Infidel says:

      You, along with many other posters on this page, are all so sure of your own intelligence that you fail to get all the facts, and ignorantly conclude that anyone who drives an SUV and disagrees with your politics simply MUST be a “Red State Anti-environmentalist.” That is so prejudiced and short-sighted, it’s no wonder you aren’t bright enough to consider the idea that you might not know everything. Despite how deeply you believe and want it to be true, the emissions of American vehicles (SUV or otherwise) has very little affect on the environment. In fact, with modern emissions systems, the environmental impact of our vehicles is negligible, especially compared to the real polluters out there. A single container ship coming into a US port generates as much carbon emissions as 300,000 cars. Just one ship equals 300,000 cars, and the ships come and go all day BY THE THOUSANDS! But it’s not fashionable to use facts to make decisions that will actually help the environment. It’s much more hip to make prejudiced assumptions and discriminate against people different than you. If a person has the temerity to drive a different car than you and aren’t even cool enough to put the ubiquitous “COEXIST” bumper sticker on the back, then the MUST be ignorant, evil, republican white dudes, right? That you snobs of the gall to consider yourselves “open minded” is nearly as appalling as your arrogant overestimation of your own intelligence.
      By the way, to dispel your childish assumptions, I LOATHE the Right and their delusional religious zeal. But everybody picks on them. Today the Left is louder, more ignorantly sure of their cause, and more intrusive into people’s lives than the Republicans ever dreamed of. You are not nearly as clever as you think you are- please, tell your friends.

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  9. jblog says:

    Actually, I think the thing I enjoy the most — along with the great engineering, comfortable ride and the terrific gas mileage — is the instant moral high ground it conveys.

    So if I see some dolt with a “No Blood For Oil” bumpersticker on his gas guzzler filling up at the Gas N Sip, I’m legally allowed to take out a tire iron and bust his windshield.

    No really — I’m pretty sure it’s in the brochure.

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  10. Ranis says:

    Interesting article. Its similar to all these high end benefit functions. While the idea is noble and helpful, sometimes its all about being seen in your expensive dress and shoes. A moral dilemma maybe?

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  11. UnwontedCandour says:

    Finally I have the answer to why used Prius prices had been rising after the Japan earthquake. I had been scratching my head of the economic wisdom of paying more just to SAVE on fuel costs.

    see the riddle here:’ Costly Thrift’ http://www.unexpectedutility.com/behavioural-living/costly-thrift

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  12. Zmagoon says:

    I purchased a Pruis to reduce the amount of gas I use. If I need to spend a little more to get a vehicle to achieve this, then so be it. It is a distinctive vehicle, in a good way–shaped by hundreds of hours in wind tunnels to create the lowest coefficient of drag of any production vehicle on the market. It is one of the reasons it gets 50mpg. And if it takes conspicuous conservation to get people to drive more efficient vehicles, is that really a bad thing?

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  13. Jeremy says:

    Interestingly, Prius drivers also get more tickets than drivers of other cars:

    http://www.hybridcars.com/hybrid-drivers/study-hybrid-drivers-get-more-tickets-25919.html

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  14. Joel Upchurch says:

    This comes as no surprise to me. Here is a comment I made on Dot Earth. “From what I can see most people concern about climate change is more of a political fashion statement than a reasoned, evidence based position. People will buy a Prius because it is a trendy thing to do, not because of their deep concern about global warming. Even if they say that is their reason, when you ask about the details, they have no idea what the impact is or even if it actually reduces their net carbon footprint.”

    I reminded of a comment a man made going to a party at Arianna Huffington’s house. He wasn’t sure about exactly where her house was in the neighborhood. He saw a Prius and had a brainstorm and followed it and it took him straight to her house. Of course, that was a few years ago when Priuii were a lot less common. If you want that kind of environmental street cred today, you would probably have to buy a Tesla.

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  15. Stefanie says:

    The car is the most well marketed product on the market, well maybe debt is marketed better.
    The Prius is well marketed, I know there are other Eco-friendly low-gas, money saving vehicles available. However, the Prius is the only one I’ve driven (vacation car rentals) and it’s the only one I know the name of. I am guessing that is true for many folks out there. If you are looking to buy, name recognition is absolutely a factor.

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  16. Howard says:

    Its a much easier decision to buy the product that is the market leader in its space than to go against the grain. There are no doubt many worthy alternatives to the Prius, but if you buy the Prius you know you are making a safe choice. Maybe not the best possible choice, but a good choice. And you don’t need to do a lot of tedious research to come to this conclusion.

    Also, some people just do what all the people around them do. I live in something of an enviro hotbed, so I see Priuses everywhere. Buying a Prius makes you part of the club. Personally I am more of a contrarian. I look for reasons NOT to have what everyone else has. (So for example, when I decided to get a smartphone I deliberately didn’t get an iphone because everyone I know has one. Its not any more rational than trend-following, but we all have our funny little ways.)

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  17. SM says:

    Why do people buy BMW or a Mercedes? Or even a big SUV or a big house?

    Sales of big SUV or luxury cars combined far outsells the Prius.

    Why is it that these guys are picking on people that at least are trying to be environmentally friendly and manufacturers that produce more efficient cars?

    If the authors are really concerned about conservation, they should highlight the “conspicuous consumption” like the vast majority of people who buys big SUV as a fashion statement, while never taking it off-road.

    Seems to me a case of Prius envy. Or maybe they are funded by some competitor of Toyota.

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  18. Heather says:

    I drive a Prius because I like it. I bought it 4 years ago and it has been an excellent vehicle. I carpool with my husband and only spend about $25/week on fuel – even now that the price of gas has gone up.
    I’m not trying to be conspicuously ecological or anything, I’m just being cheap. It cost about the same for the Prius as it would have for the other vehicle I might have purchased (Camry, Accord or something similar) but the fuel savings do add up over time.

    Our other vehicle is a Sienna. We don’t drive that in order to be conspicuous either. We drive it because we sometimes need to carry 5 people, a dog and other things. It’s a tool to get us from point A to point B, and I really don’t care if anyone looks at it and thinks ‘oh, soccer mom’ because it’s what works for us. The Prius is the same. It runs well, it’s reliable, it’s cheap to fuel and it will probably keep running for another 150,000 miles if I take care of it. What’s not to like?

    BTW, my husband and I have both noticed that when you drive a Prius there are lots of SUV/big truck drivers who seem to consider it a pride thing to pass. It’s like they couldn’t be caught dead BEHIND a Prius, so they aggressively zoom around – and it doesn’t matter whether I’m going the speed limit or 10 above, they still have to pass as if I were grandma out for a Sunday drive. When we used to have a Tacoma truck, people didn’t really pass like that. But the Prius seems to get that reaction.

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  19. Ray Gaetano says:

    Reminds me of Ron Thomason’s grandmother in rural VA. When elictrification came, her family bought her an electric stove and had it installed in the kitchen.
    The next time they came visiting it was on the front porch. Granny said the neighbors would not know she had one if she kept it in the kitchen.
    Can’t change human nature.

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  20. VJBinCT says:

    My wife has had a Prius for about 5 years now, and loves it. The virtuousness does show, but I like it too, for a number of practical reasons. Certainly the mileage is great, though not mind-boggling i ncomparison to some other economy models. It also has some neat features that give it curiosity cachet.. But what I like most is the huge volume efficiency of the thing. We often travel to our kids’ houses 300-1000 miles away with huge amounts of STUFF. We fit 10 foot long lumber into it, honest to God! The newest models are supposed to be even bigger inside without much increase on the outside. Extremely well-designed vehicle. I myself wouldn’t care if it were a diesel-powered car with almost the same mileage as a hybrid. It just works well as a people and goods mover.

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  21. Vania says:

    I thought the Prius wasn’t that good a choice actually, given its embedded energy, and small components travelling all over the world to make its way into the car… greenest option is to drive an old car until it can’t go any longer, even if the consumption is higher than a Prius, since most of the energy over a lifetime is used in the manufacture… I wish the myth of the Prius would be debunked!

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  22. Bill says:

    I wonder how these economists will tease out the relevant data. We own a Honda Insight – the Prius actually looks a lot like the original Honda Insight on the market years before the Prius. We see a number of Prius (Prii?) on the road, but few Insights – less money and more bang for the buck than the slightly larger Prius. Friends who own a Prius talk about gas mileage, as we do, and not their environmental concerns in the context of their car ownership.

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  23. Politburo says:

    The whole analysis seems to hinge on the assumption that all hybrid vehicles are equal. This is far from the case. There is a reason that the Prius is the best-selling hybrid, and it’s not because the design is distinctive or because of ‘street cred’. It’s because it gets the 2nd best mileage and sacrifices pretty much nothing from what we expect in a “normal” car. The Insight might get better mileage, but sacrifices a lot (the authors hand-waved away this huge counterexample in a footnote).

    All the other hybrids are weak tea since they were not purposefully designed as a hybrid vehicle and only get marginal MPG improvements that do not offset the increased purchase price.

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  24. Debbi Evans says:

    Great post, thanks!

    There’s another paper from the Uni of Minnesota very much along the same lines – you may also find it useful/interesting…http://www.csom.umn.edu/assets/140554.pdf

    “Going green to be seen: status, reputation and conspicuous consumption”

    Debbi
    canvas8.com

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  25. Joseph Steig says:

    What drives me a bit batty–as a self-professed car guy–is that no one comments on what an utterly brilliant design the Prius is completely aside from the fact that it’s a hybrid. The thing has better space utilization than any car on the road today in the United States. Even without being a hybrid, it deserves to be a best seller because it’s so large on the inside for its relatively small outside. Additionally, there IS NO PRIUS PRICE PREMIUM. I simply can’t understand how people can calculate that. It’s about the same price as a Camry or Accord, but has more space inside. and gets better mileage. With this study saying you get added green halo effects, it’s even more of a bargain. And no, I don’t own one…yet.

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  26. mark o says:

    i have a client who is obsessed with his hi-profile energy conservation mode.
    he’s addicted to the local press and his image.
    and…he won’t insulate one of his buildings that is leaking energy like a sieve.
    insulating a bldg will never bring sweet press.
    sad but true.

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  27. Logan says:

    There are people who purchase a Prius for “conspicuous conservation” but, the researchers data is flawed if they choose a Honda Civic Hybrid as a control (or any other car for that matter). I believe it is reasonable to assume the average person in the market of a hybrid vehicle is interested in the following attributes: cost to own, performance, and environmental effects.
    Cost to own – The researchers were correct in that the purchase cost of the vehicles are very similar. However, the Prius gets an additional 6mpg over the civic. This is a significant and will save the owner 2200 dollars over the life of the car.
    Environmental Effects – Again, the 6 mpg advantage is significant.
    Performance – The Prius handles well and despite popular belief, has more than enough power to drive efficiently and safely. I will assume the Civic is also capable in this manner. However, there is a feature more fundamental to automobile performance than acceleration, the ability to transport stuff from point A to point B. The prius literally has more than twice the cargo space of the civic hybrid. That is a remarkle advantage. I think we can safely assume that there is a correlation between hybrid ownership and passion for outdoor activities. Outdoor activities often require great amounts of gear and thus, we should assume the additional cargo space of a Prius is a very desirable quality among hybrid owners.

    I think this topic of economics is intriguing and worth researching but, the quality of the research discussed in this podcast was disappointing.

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  28. trol says:

    i drag race im my hibrid

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  29. liam says:

    The problem with Steve and Alison’s study is that they ignore the fact that people like to show that the conservation movement has momentum. They may be more confident about making the effort to show that they are part of the movement when the movement is bigger. They also ignored a big alternate hypothesis: that people in anti-environmental regions may be afraid to exhibit obvious environmentalist tendencies. I grew up in Idaho, where one may feel nervous admitting that they were environmentalists, road a bike, drove an efficient car. Guys in some bars look at you sideways if drove up in something other than a truck.

    I commute by bike, and I am convinced that people are more likely to ride if they see that I can ride to work with out difficulty.

    On the point about solar panels, efficiency is not just about sun, it is also about not overheating solar panels. This helps with efficiency in SF and Seattle.

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  30. Zurdo says:

    Good article, they didi not provide the financial analysis:

    20,000 miles per year at 20 mpg in previous car = 1000 gallons
    20,000 miles per year at 50 mpg in 20102 Prius =400 gallons
    Annual savings 600 gallons times $4 per gallon= $2400 per year

    In addition to being Conspicuous Conservation it has a great pay back
    10 years the car is free

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  31. Scott says:

    The Prius gets 51 mpg, while the comparison car, the Honda Civic Hybrid gets 41mpg. This is a 20% difference, more than enough to explain the difference in popularity. Also, the Prius’ design allows it to get better mpg due to aerodynamics.

    I was disappointed that these issues were not addressed in this report.

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  32. tom murphy says:

    Don’t forget the lower weight of the Prius-the ultimate gas saver. I don’t remember owning so light a car since the 1960′s!

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  33. Brad says:

    In comparing the Prius to the Civic Hybrid as “essentially the same” I think the authors actually based many of their discussion points on an inaccurate assumption. I owned a standard Civic for years and loved the car. When it was time for new car, I tried very hard to convince myself to buy the Civic hybrid, but couldn’t get around the difference in mileage the Prius offered. My Prius consistently gets me just above 50 mpg, while the Civic hybrid, according to fueleconomy.gov gets scarcely over 40 mpg. Which is really just 5 mpg more than I was getting with my standard engine Civic. The Prius offers a 20% improvement in gas mileage over the Civic. This is not a fair comparison. I would have rather stuck with the stylings of my beloved Civic, but the mileage of the Prius won over.

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  34. Ferhan says:

    I was intrigued by this topic and did some calculations on my own. You can see them here.

    http://www.livexperimental.com/2012/08/hybrid-car-multi-thousand-dollar-feel.html

    There is no financial benefit to the purchaser while buying a hybrid. There is no clear and measurable environmental benefit either, since production seems to be costly and causes other indirect environmental impact. So the only thing left is the “look rich and environmental” angle.

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  35. Billy says:

    OK, accepted that there may be some “Prius Effect” that puts some small green halo around purchasers. If I gave this a great deal of thought, I’d probably come up with a huge SO WHAT? in response. EVERY friggin’ thing ANYBODY purchases says something about the purchaser, if we do enough naval gazing. There are good, practical reasons to buy a high MPG car. Are there more subtle reasons? Yeah, but there are subtle reasons for buying a black car or a red car instead of a white one. Who the hell cares? And buying a Prius says waaaaay less about Prius owners than the morons who customize their trucks with “Prius repellant” or “Rollin’ Coal”. THOSE people are serious head cases….

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