Hey Baby, Is That a Prius You’re Driving?

For about $20 you can announce your environmental bona fides with a canvas tote that says "I'm not a plastic bag." (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Remember when keeping up with the Joneses meant buying a diamond-encrusted cigarette case? Such ostentatious displays of wealth during the Gilded Age prompted economist Thorstein Veblen to coin the term conspicuous consumption.

Conspicuous consumption has hardly gone away — what do you think bling is? — but now it’s got a right-minded cousin: conspicuous conservation. Whereas conspicuous consumption is meant to signal how much green you’ve got, conspicuous conservation signals how green you are. Like carrying that “I’m not a plastic bag” bag, or installing solar panels on the side of your house facing the street — even if that happens to be the shady side.

Conspicuous conservation is the theme of our latest podcast, called “Hey Baby, Is That a Prius You’re Driving?” (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen live via the embedded media player, or read the transcript here.) It centers around a paper by Alison and Steve Sexton, a pair of Ph.D. economics candidates (who happen to be twins, and who happen to have economist parents), called “Conspicuous Conservation: The Prius Effect and Willingness to Pay for Environmental Bona Fides.” Why single out the Toyota Prius?

S. SEXTON: The Honda Civic hybrid looks like a regular Honda Civic. The Ford Escape hybrid looks like a Ford Escape. And so, our hypothesis is that if the Prius looked like a Toyota Camry or a Toyota Corolla that it wouldn’t be as popular as it is. And so what we set out to do in this paper is to test that empirically.

The question they really wanted to answer was this: how much value do people who lean green place on being seen leaning green? The Sextons found that the Prius’s “green halo” was quite valuable — and, the greener the neighborhood, the more valuable the Prius is.

You’ll also hear from the British writer/economist Tim Harford (author, most recently, of Adapt), who nimbly tracks conspicuous conservation in his own country, including the little windmill that popped up on David Cameron’s London roof whilst he was campaigning to become prime minister.

HARFORD: Wind power can be pretty effective. But you need a really, really big windmill in a really windy location to be efficient. These little windmills, especially in an urban environment, where you don’t get a consistent flow of wind — they generate an incredibly small amount of energy.

Cameron did win the election, in part because he pledged to build an “eco-friendly economy.” But his windmill was as much about sending a green signal as powering his toaster or even demonstrating his commitment to environmental issues.

A big part of conspicuous conservation is of course what the signals mean, and to discuss signalling theory we have Robin Hanson of George Mason University. This is a man who has argued on his blog against admirable activities. To him, they’re part of a self-interested arms race, and should be seen as such:

HANSON: Managing our appearance is actually a lot of what we humans do. Trying to understand, business, trying to understand jobs, school, even medicine — if you don’t understand people are trying to manage their image, you miss out on a lot of what’s going on.

You’ll also hear about the cars that Hanson and the Sextons drive, and we ask whether Toyota thought much about conspicuous consumption before the Sextons. South Park certainly did.

Leave A Comment

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  1. Rich Becker says:

    While I don’t disagree that image does have an allure. I think the ‘Green Rating’ was a poor metric for the paper. Most people have no idea what that is. They do understand miles per gallon.

    Prius is listed at 51
    Camry Hybrid is 33.

    No wonder Prius is more popular.

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    • DeeChristian says:

      Prius has a visible cheese-wedge shape that broadcasts the green signal. Same with the spacey looking Nissan Leaf EV, And of course the Tesla S.

      A fairer automotive comparison study could use Toyotas other hybrid cars such as the Camry. These broadcast almost no visible green signal. Their shape and appearance is identical to conventional non hybrid models.

      Some of the anti green socially rightward drift evident today might be reactionary to this conspicuous conservation phenomenon.

      And an independent study could involve the Mitsubishi iMiev and Coda EV sedan. These are truly super green cars that broadcast exactly the opposite image signal. Perhaps that’s why neither has become as popular?

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  2. notkevinnealon says:

    A friend who is involved in the mansion building industry told of an Internet billionaire located in Las Vegas who drive a Prius, as did his wife. Interesting / disgusting part is that they were building a 20,000 sq foot mansion – in the desert no less. I have wondered what small fraction of the A/C bill they were making amends for.

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    • MikeD says:

      Not that I don’t think a 20,000 sqft mansion is ridiculous, you have to remember that heating and A/C required goes as the surface area of the building (i.e., where the hot/cold can actually get out into the atmosphere). The surface area of a building goes roughly as the square root of the size (nerds will wonder why I didn’t do cube root, that’s because the house size is measured in area instead of volume, so we already accounted for one of the dimensions) , so if you go from a 2,000 sqft house to a 20,000 sqft mansion, you’ve increased the size of the house 10x but you really only increased the surface area by 3. Again, I’m not saying that a 20,000 sqft house is “green”, but it’s not 10x as bad as you would normally assume.

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      • james says:

        Don’t forget the wine.

        A board member for a green non-profit spends $6000/month to chill his wine cellar. I doubt the 2000 sf house has one of those. . . And add in the heated pool, jacuzzi, etc

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  3. Fred says:

    Disclaimer: I’m a Prius Owner

    I did a lot of research before buying my car. The Honda Civic Hybrid is a very poor substitute. The MPG is different, the options are different, the hatchback and fold down back seat adds value for me, the consumer reports rating is better. Although the difference isn’t huge the Prius is a better value then the Honda Civic Hybrid in almost every way.

    Toyota did confuse the market by not allowing buyers to choose a Hybrid/non-Hybrid option so measuring consumers direct willingness to pay for the Hybrid technology it is not possible.

    I also wonder what percentage of solar panel owners choose to install their panels in a more visible and less efficient location? How many solar panel owners have already done insulation and other less visible changes first? How do solar panel owners in far less then optimal locations compare to folks paying their power company an increased rate for green energy (a closer equivalent of paying to install the panel on someone else’s roof). I feel like not enough research was put into how small the conspicuous market is as compared to the non-conspicuous distorting the listeners perception of reality. Power company green energy programs, high efficiency replacement windows/doors and insulation expenses in the US far dwarf the amount of badly placed solar panels and private jet flying Prius owners which are far more fun to talk about.

    I enjoy Freakonomics Radio but I’m pretty unimpressed with the research behind this episode.

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    • Heather says:

      Fred, those are also good points.

      I am a Prius owner and we found the Prius to be a better fit for us – roomier than the Civic, so with the space issue and the mpg, it wasn’t a difficult decision to make.

      We also have solar, and you are correct – there are a LOT of non-conspicuous changes that are generally made before the solar panels go on. The very first thing our solar installer did was ask what we could do to cut consumption. It’s cheaper to cut consumption than it is to put more panels on the roof. We made plenty of invisible changes – light bulbs were replaced with the energy-efficient ones, we replaced our old refrigerator with an energy-star one, and we covered all of our windows with solar screens.

      Those three changes cut our consumption by 33%. None of them are really visible to anyone in a way that screams “WE’RE GREEN!” The solar shades are pretty common in our neighborhood, so those aren’t all that noticeable.

      We did not have a place on the front of our house for the panels, and the back of our house faced the wrong direction. We ended up getting our patio extended and putting the solar on that. The extended covered patio played two roles – it gave us a place for the solar panels, but it also shields the living room and master bedroom from getting the worst of the sun in the summer.

      While there are certainly incidences of ‘conspicuous conservation’ out there, I’m sure there are lots of other people who are just being practical.

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      • James says:

        Those “invisible changes” are a big part of the reason I don’t have PV solar, and won’t until I can either buy an electric/plug-in hybrid that fits my needs, or the local power company starts paying for the excess power I’d generate. They’ve gotten my monthly electric bill down to under $50. With no loss – indeed, some improvement – in comfort, I might add.

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  4. Steve S. says:

    I really enjoyed this podcast! The concept of “competitive altruism” and the phrase “low hanging fruit” both seems relevant beyond this topic. Good work!

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  5. Joe B. says:

    I just listened to the podcast…very interesting as usual. I have an insight to offer regarding the Sextons’ research. Perhaps the paper they wrote delves into this, but I haven’t read it, so do forgive. The research revealed that some “green” neighborhoods actually have fewer Prius owners than expected. As an urban planner, I think I can offer an explanation of this anomaly. I suspect the role the neighborhood’s location plays on travel behavior may not have been accounted for. Gentrified, inner-city neighborhoods tend to be some of the “greenest,” depending on the metrics used. These neighborhoods offer residents a far greater degree of transportation alternatives, such as biking, transit, and walking. Many residents in these “green” neighborhoods may not NEED a car, and choose to display their conspicuous conservation by riding a bike. Another factor worth considering is that many of the young urban hipsters living in these neighborhoods could care less what image they are projecting (myself included). There’s my two cents…for what it’s worth.

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  6. Ed says:

    I commute by bike (not for the greenness of it, but overall convenience and economics of it), and every time I see a Prius drive by me on my commute, I hope they’re just a little bit jealous that I’m even greener than they are.

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  7. Andrew Lamontagne says:

    Firstly The Image of the Prius is based on interior space vs the aero co-efficient.
    The 2010 Prius gets a staggering .25 drag co-efficient.. the shape of the car is purely based around these wind tunnel tests. It is the only major manufactured HEV that’s purely built to offer a exceptional efficiency in a wind tunnel.

    The Prius in every spectrum of the car is working or developing a more efficient HEV. although HEV and EVs are not really efficient at the moment compared to their long battle with petrol running automobiles.
    Toyota Prius HEV system works completely different than its competitors.
    For example
    -the engine purely powers the battery
    -kinetic recovery systems
    -the chassis shape and size is developed by aero co-efficient and compartment room
    -least amount of rotational mass

    The main reason the Toyota Prius dominates the market is the fact that they were the first major manufacture to offer an HEV. The put more money into development in aero, mechanical, and electrical efficiency.

    The Toyota petrol engines, such as the engine found in the Prius, air to fuel ratio is on the rich side. why rich on fuel? a lean fuel mixture might give you better fuel economy but the engine will run at a hotter temperature thus creating higher wear rate on the engine. while a richer fuel mixture will give you a motor that will get a longer life span, due to engine temperatures.

    That being said their are many petrol running cars that get greater mpg equivalents compared to the prius. other cars with greater aero efficiency. others with less rotational mass. at the moment, the prius does its job the best all around for an HEV.

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  8. Soony says:

    Conspicuous conservation maybe for the wannabe rich hipsters, but those who are really rich, I suspect go green for the guilt-reducing factor. We rich people like to assuage our guilt for having so much money by giving to a cleaner environment.

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  9. Fred says:

    My first degree was in Economics, and a dry old subject it was too. I like listening to your podcast, because it shows the interesting side of economic behaviour. It’s a good listen, with thought-provoking statistical analysis.

    If you did an analysis on your listenership, I’m pretty sure you’d find, in common with most podcasts, that consumers of audio are more likely than not mobile. Old time radio’s image of the rocking chair next to a wireless the size of a substantial piece of furniture is outdated. With podcasts especially, people are more likely to strap on their choice of pod, and listen whilst jogging, stairmastering, cycling, commuting – it’s a very mobile listenership.

    Most podcasters realised this, and when talking travel, transport or cars in particular do not use the hackneyed, clichéed, passé and superfluous sound of a car horn. For the reason that it is unmuffled by earbuds or car windows, it comes directly into the ear and announces forcibly that you are jogging or cycling into danger.

    I was cycling down the east coast of Thailand, on a straight, flat road, palm trees swinging ever-so-gently, the Gulf of Thailand just to my left, sparkling delightfully just beyond the white beach to my left, just hit a nice rhythm, got into top gear and was pretty much in the zone. My Ipod was playing the “Hey Baby, Is That a Prius You’re Driving?” episode, interested in the “conspicuous conservation” concept – when your podcast had a completely unnecessary car horn blast that shattered my peace, and very nearly shocked me into an accident. Fuck you.

    Don’t do that.

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    • MattNYC says:

      Uh, Fred…

      You’re not supposed to wear headphones–certainly not both–when riding. What if that horn had been real? Or a car (a nice super quiet Prius) was behind you and you had no idea because you were oblivious to anything else?

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      • Joshua Northey says:

        MattNYC, I have biked maybe 30,000 miles in headphones, they are no safety risk and are on low enough that I can hear the cars when they are still over a hundred feet away. I haven’t had a single problem with not hearing a car.

        I do agree completely with the idiocy of putting car horns in podcasts on the radio or anywhere else that they might be heard while driving/biking/et cetera.

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      • John Bennett says:

        Nowhere does he say he was wearing headphones, nor earphones. There are lots of ways to listen to an iPod.

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      • Fred says:

        Would it surprise you to learn US law doesn’t apply in Thailand? Or did you not read my post?
        They are earbuds – the rest of the world is still audible.

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    • Andrew says:

      I absolutely hate it when people put car horns over the radio. The fastest way to ensure that I don’t buy whatever your selling is to put a car horn in your radio commercial. I didn’t listen to this while driving or while I was by a road so I didn’t recognize it in this program but I do thank you for pointing it out.

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      • Brandi says:

        You got to push it-this esenstial info that is!

        [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us ‘0 which is not a hashcash value.

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  10. m henner says:

    In the discussion on signaling, it was suggested that this was more important to Prius owners in ‘greener’ neighborhoods than in conservative ones.

    I wonder if that is so.

    If I was in a conservative neighborhood feeling isolated, it might be more important to drive my Prius as a way of signaling, that is finding other likeminded folks.

    In Seattle or San Fran I would not feel so isolated, and so signaling would be worth less.

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    • james says:

      I think the opposite would happen – that your Prius or even 1973 bug with an Obama sticker and painted on flowers is much more likely to be keyed in say Texas than in San Fran. If you are in a conservative neighborhood where big trucks with gun racks and Rush on every channel are the status symbols, you might NOT want to stand out.

      There are social benefits and costs to these actions that depend on the surrounding community.

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  11. Benjamin D. Bloom says:

    $4,000 for the status symbol? All they need is one of these for $5: http://ow.ly/5zKmS :)

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  12. kris says:

    We have both a Prius and a Honda Civic hybrid. Both drivers in the family prefer the Civic (more comfortable seat and fewer blindspots). As another noted, the Prius has a hatchback, and that is the reason we purchased this over another Civic. Doing the math on our actual driving habits, the Prius does get about 4 mph better than the Civic. But we still prefer the Civic.

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  13. Nikki says:

    You didn’t mention that the first Prius model looked almost exactly like a Toyota Echo. Significant?

    We drive a Honda Civic and an early model Insight, both hybrids. We get a lot of looks and comments on the Insight. People keep calling it a Prius. Strangers would also ask me about the Civic when it was new (in 2002), but not anymore.

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  14. Craig says:

    Hey, why pick just on the Prius owners, just because South Park did? Let’s look to see if there’s an effect at both ends of eco-land, by checking on our Hummer-driving brethren.

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    • james says:

      Great idea. I bet a Prius to Hummer ratio would say a lot about the political leaning of various US counties.

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  15. Bapiraju says:

    I have been listening to the Podcast for a while (from Bangalore) and I really like the way it is presented. This week’s presentation is just great. It got me thinking on how, as a Software Product Development Organization, we can apply this principle to drive our staff’s behavior :-) Good job!

    On the “car horn” sound in the podcast – it confused me too, more than once! I usually listen this on my commute to office and the car horns included were loud enough to make it sound “real”. Please make sure to be more careful while creating the show.

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  16. Ted Pavlic says:

    Two minor things bothered me about this story.

    First, the windmill intro in the lede of the story needs a little fact checking. Synchronous windmills that generate 60Hz (or 50Hz in the UK) electricity must be spinning at a constant rate in order to work. They can be turned off during time of little wind, but during normal operation they will spin at a constant speed regardless of how fast the wind is blowing (greater wind generates greater rotor torque which generates greater current, but the speed stays the same to ensure the synchronous (60Hz) operation). You can design these windmills to slip, but these changes are usually to reduce mechanical fatigue and introduce electrical inefficiencies.

    Yes, it’s true that more advanced windmills generate DC at any speed and then have that DC inverted to be injected onto a conventional power grid (or DC–DC switched to high voltage for transmission). However, most of the windmills your readers will be familiar with are of the synchronous type… which are also likely the type of windmills they understand the least.

    Next, the story (or the story in the story) seemed to compare the Toyota Prius (Hybrid) to the Honda Civic Hybrid. Why not also include the Honda Insight (Hybrid)? The Insight was made to look just as ugly as the Prius, but it doesn’t dominate market share purely because it “looks like a hybrid.” So it seems like the investigation is a little incomplete.

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    • Ted Pavlic says:

      By the way, at least with the windmills, I’m referring to the audio story — where there were snarky comments made about using motors to spin windmills artificially… I’m just trying to correct the myth that all good windmills spin because they’re being blown by the wind. There are plenty of good windmills that spin because they have to otherwise they could not be connected directly to an AC power grid.

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  17. Isabella Cota Schwarz says:

    “The problem is that environmental guilt, though it may well lead to conspicuous ecoproducts, does not seem to elicit conspicuous results… The positive effect of idealistic consumers does exist, but it is masked by the rising demand and numbers of other consumers.”

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  18. Kali says:

    When we first got our Prius and I saw the South Park episode about it, I wrote about the feeling of having to live up to the responsibility of being smug and perceived at “eco-conscious”. (http://evidentlyblog.blogspot.com/2006/11/feeling-smug-about-driving-hybrid.html) While the Prius may be conspicuous in flagging one as someone who cares about energy efficiency, it also flags you as someone who should be doing everything in their power to help solve the problem. And if not, then ‘the guilt’.

    I also want to say that our motivation to buy a new Prius in 2005 came from a desire to support the technology. Clearly hybrid technology is not perfect nor the endgame for motor vehicle propulsion but my husband and I wanted to vote with our $’s that this was something we wanted to see more of. But why did we pick the Prius above all others on the market at the time? Because it was the quickest and easiest way to signal our vote and our faith in alternative technologies.

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  19. Robert Homer says:

    This podcast seems to be a good example of economists naivete with respect to psychology. It is hardly a major insight that people value connectedness. And displaying a product which shows your values is a way to promote community among like minded people. That has obvious value to a social species like humans. Why else display symbols of sports teams?

    On the other hand, perhaps the real point of this podcast is to just to poke fun at the ecologically minded? Recognizing that some of whom may pursue that aim in less than ideal forms.

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  20. Mike G says:

    I looked at both the prius and civic a few years back and chose the prius over the civic. Not because it advertised my green-ness, but rather because it had a better gas mileage, larger trunk, better dealer financing,… the two cars are not good a comparison. I’ll have to read the article to figure out how the Sextons arrived at $1K for the value gained from “I’m green!” advertising the prius provides. I didn’t think the price difference between the two was more than $1-3K.

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  21. Scott Hemmons says:

    If a man does a good deed in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a difference?

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  22. Heidi says:

    I hate to nitpick, but the term is wind turbine, not wind mill. What exactly do you imagine is being milled? My kids’ school put up a wind turbine in their yard (relatively small, not sure if it’s bigger than David Cameron’s or not) and while it does not generate enough electricity to power the school, it does contribute. Perhaps more importantly it is used, along with (conspicuously placed) solar panels to teach the students about alternative energy,. They learn how the wind turbine and the solar panels work and speculate on how they can be improved and more widely implemented. Conspicuous conservation? Perhaps, but not entirely for show.

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  23. Steve says:

    Hi – the ‘share Tweet ‘ is going to Error 404

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  24. Amnon Govrin says:

    Two words: Honda Insight.
    When the first Prius was on our streets (which looked like the most boring compact ever) there was Honda Insight, which didn’t look like anything out there including dubiously contributing wheel covers. It had better gas mileage than second generation and even third generation Prius. And it was also cheaper. But it had only two seats.
    So, very similar in “signaling”, better features except for only 2 seats. As much as I agree with your claim of Prius not having a “non-hybrid” model like all the other hybrids, the Insight doesn’t fit that mold and the original Prius doesn’t fit that model either as it had the design of a standard compact.
    Fast forward to last year, when the new Insight was introduced. It effectively looks like a slightly smaller Prius and doesn’t have a gas-only counterpart that would dilute the green image.
    Is the most sold Hybrid by Honda the new Insight (since introduction)? Are the Insight sales close to Prius? Was the old Insight a successful car?
    My point is that there is more to it and this podcast showed the data serving its point rather than other data that might not.
    I, for one, could care less about the green effect. I bought my Prius 2008 because it is cool and fun in a geeky kind of way and comes standard with the MPG video game also known as the 7 inch screen in the dashboard.

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  25. Andrew says:

    I like the story and honestly I actually find myself for once happy about this type of keeping up with the Jones idea (hey whatever gets people to do something good). That last part about not leaving a tip ticks me off though.
    However, personally I bought my Prius because at the time it was the car with the highest mpg rating that I could get besides the Honda Insight. I after a long debate with myself over which of these two cars to get (the civic’s mpg left it a long way out of the running) I chose the Prius over the Insight because it had more room for hauling people and stuff. At the time I found myself moving every 6-12 months to different states for various jobs and I knew I could get all my stuff to fit in a Prius but not the Insight.

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  26. Paul says:

    I have no use for Prius people particularly, although it seems like a reasonable enough car to drive.

    But remembering the New Yorker article that discussed your thoughts on ecology as a whole, you seem really contemptuous of ideas of conservation, but pretty smug in your own predictions for a technological solution to some pretty vast and imminent problems.

    I was generally disgusted by this podcast. Yeah, I get it. Some prius drivers are assholes about it. No big news. There does, generally, seem to be a problem with global climate change that could quite possibly be affecting each of us, right now, in a big way, that’s only likely to get bigger. But you don’t seem to deal with that in any way, just insult a bunch of people who, regardless of their smugness, have actually reduced the amount of carbon they are burning, at least a little.

    So where are your solutions? Are they happening? Is carbon sequestering happening somewhere right now? Could you point to some things that are working? Because it appears that nothing is. And you all are sitting there with smug looks on your faces.


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  27. Nick says:

    I found the study completed by Sexton to be incomplete. He made a very large jump in reasoning by concluding that the primary reason people buy the Prius over the Honda Civic hybrid is due to appearance. This study would have been accurate if he had completed a random survey with questions aimed out determining the purchasing decision.

    I recently made this purchasing decision myself. What stood out to me and my fiance was the higher actual gas mileage of the Prius. Real world test show it providing an average of 50 mpg in city environments with heavy stop and go traffic. Another factor was Toyota leading the hybrid technology market; it was theorized that Honda is actually using older Toyota technology. Online reviews favored the Prius for dependability. All of this said, we chose to go with the Lexus CT Hybrid, which, when priced with equivalent features as the Prius, was the same price. We chose to avoid the Prius appearance, not because we did not want to be identified as conservationist, but because the Prius appearance does not coincide with the self-perceived appearance of an early 30’s, pre-children couple.

    Back to basic statistical analysis, Sexton! But good luck getting that third spot for 2012 behind Kemper and Shoemaker.

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  28. Jim Chapdelaine says:

    Ok, ok, I get it. All Prius drivers are sanctimonious, environmental zealots as born out in the Sextons study, right? Not so fast economists. I listened to the segment while driving in my 2007 Prius. I met a few of the demographics described but none of them
    really described my primary motivation to get a Prius. Here’s 2 things to consider. Ok, 3 things.
    My primary motivation was simple and was never mentioned – economics. When I bought my car it was the leader in mpg. I predicted that gas would go up (it did thank you) and it was time to ditch my Honda CRV. I have saved thousands of dollars. Maybe there are equally efficient economic choices now but I think the study was flawed. I am frugal and while my house has energy saving light bulbs and is sealed (inconspicuously) the Prius saved me money and probably is greener than other cars. That was not accounted for in the study. Just sayin’.
    Another thing not mentioned is my theory of ‘first to the table’. Let’s talk about something I know about (I compose music for documentaries and play live dates for which I can fit my guitars, amps and a drum kit in my Prius). Your radio show is probably recorded and edited on a system called “Pro Tools”. I use it every day. Why?
    Because they own the market. Despite initial flaws, they were the first to the table, established market dominance and weeded out a lot of equally good competition.
    The same might be said of the Prius. They got there first. Fully featured, well branded, good battery and solid reputation without any sort of ‘experimental’ notions attached to the brand. They perform reliably and do what they say they do while the perception
    of the others are that they got in the game late. None of this was considered by the Sextons who ably demonstrated the demographic aspect of the Prius brand but (not hating) I think, failed to cut to the quick of the particulars while using the Prius as an emblem of a particular phenomena. So, while interesting and partially accurate, they’re really addressing a broader set of circumstances. None of my neighbors have their com-posters in the front yard.
    Part of being green is that it saves money. Light bulbs last longer and my pellet stove runs cheaper than oil. By sealing the cracks in my old house I save money.

    Next time – follow the money. Very entertaining. You did forget our Obama stickers from Move On.

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  29. Daniel J.B. Mitchell says:

    In 2002, Toyota made a Prius that looked like an ordinary car. There is a photo at:

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  30. Robert says:

    Quite possibly the worst Freakonomics podcast I have heard. Generally I enjoy your podcasts and even show excerpts of your movie in my Economics class. This episode, however, I found to be quite awful on several accounts. The study you cited did not provide a genuine control group. It further subsumed all motivation for purchasing a Prius (or doing anything for the environment whatsoever) into motives of “conspicuous conservation” without examining at any length other motivations. Just as Freud’s reductionist certainty of *why* people *really* do things (sex) ultimately fails because it dismisses the narratives produced by the individuals themselves, so your haughty reductionism in this podcast utterly failed to take into account any serious examination of the explicitly stated purchasing motivations of Prius owners, but merely glibly cited circumstantial evidence. Furthermore, your dismissive attitude about ecology in general reflects the classic Smithian and Marxian obsession with human labor and raw materials and fails to thoroughly examine the more complete “costs” of our conSUMPtion in general. Maybe re-read Hardin (Tragedy of the Commons) and Bourdieu (Logic of Practice). Then come back and tell me more about conspicuous conservation.

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  31. Robert Richardson says:

    So I will wear my little “green halo” when I fill-up my Prius for about $37 and the guy with the pick-up at the next pump clicked past $100. (I did not wait to see his total cost.)

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  32. cbb says:

    The young economists that concluded that people buy a Prius because it is recognizable as a Prius have discovered something that most people learn by the time they are ten yrs old: people buy cars for transportation, but also for status (what the car says about them) and how the car makes them feel.

    Why do people that never drive off-road buy a 4×4 Cadillac Escalade?

    Why does anyone buy a German car when Japanese and Korean cars perform similarly, cost less and are more reliable? Why did the author of the study buy an Audi A4 instead of a measurably more reliable, cheaper, similarly performing Japan sedan?

    Because he likes how he looks riding around in an Audi, and how it makes him feel sitting in the car.

    But how are we to know that the Prius is not preferred because it is a better overall fit for the customers that buy it? It is not clear that this research controlled for the fact that for several years, the Prius was the only four door hatchback in the hybrid market, that Toyota was first to market with a four seat hybrid, that the Prius has one of highest overall customer satisfaction rating of any car, that the Prius is very highly rated in comparison of hybrids, and that the Prius has a strong safety and reliability record.

    Also, did the authors consider and control for the fact that because the Prius is not available in a non-hybrid configuration, it is not easy to determine the upcharge for the hybrid upfit? In other words, if you set out to buy a Honda Civic hybrid (presumably the ‘control’ in this case), it is simple to directly determine the premium charged for the hybrid, and then determine that the benefits do not justify the hybrid premium. This is not simple with a Prius, because there is no non-hybrid option. This is a tactic that Toyota used when they developed their Lexus line of cars: consumers could be convinced to pay more for a ‘no-options’ luxury model than they could for a ‘loaded’ standard model.

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  33. ed fernandez says:

    I think a friend in the past was a conspicuous conservationist. She drove a Jaguar when she lived in Vegas. But when she moved to upper class and “environmentally conscious” Newport Beach, CA (really in another town but her house was just a few blocks away from Newport Beach where she did her shopping), she replaced her car with a Prius. The reason was not really because she cared about the environment but, as she admitted, “It’s quite fashionable to drive a Prius here.”


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  34. Joshua Correa (james kemper extra credit) says:

    I believe wind power, solar power and going green is a good thing. However, after hearing this it is evident that some people do these actions just for show. Some want others just to see them going green or ect. Like they were talking bout since it is for good causes it might not be that bad of a method. An example i have is that I used work at United Supermarket. Although we still carry the plastic and paper bags we also sell canvas bags. I was able to see people who didn’t care about what bag or hated plastic or just hated paper. I also witnessed customers who used canvas bags. Some of the customers seemed to just do it for show. They would shop and forget them in the car and when i carried the groceries out the canvas bags would just be sitting there in the back just for looks.

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  35. Linda Rogers says:

    Where do these people think the power for their plug-in cars comes from? The electricity fairy? They aren’t “going green” They just want the dummies out there to think they are.

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  36. Joseph Stakel says:


    Green + Ego

    Rich (probably white) people buying overly expensive Priuses are practicing stroking their greegos

    They stroke their greego every time they park their proud world-saving device at Starbucks to show to the world, “Hah, I’m green! I bet you’re green with ENVY instead of green with MONEY like me!”

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  37. Cara McKee says:

    Hello, I’ve been playing catch-up on the podcasts of late and just listened to this today. Loved it. So thought provoking. You’ve inspired me to write this blog post: http://ohwedo.blogspot.co.uk/2014/03/conspicuously-green.html
    Thanks for keeping my brain going while I’m doing LOTS of boring housework. :-)

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  38. Charlie says:

    Disclaimer: I am a Prius owner.

    The summary of this episode: In a world of ignorant retards, San Francisco or wherever, people will choose a Prius primarily based on it’s design/label, and not on miles per gallons.

    In a real world, people choose Prius because we can’t afford the raising gas prices. Most Prius owners don’t give a shit about environment. Businesses buy legions of Prius’s for the exact same reason. Smart people only see the bottom line, the cost. Why do you think nobody drives a 7mpg Hummer anymore. They are practically non-existent. I have always concluded Freakanomics is just a comedy show and does not actually rely on logical common sense for its entertainment.

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  39. Alex Norton says:

    The link to the paper is now broken, but it can be found here if anyone’s looking for it: http://are.berkeley.edu/fields/erep/seminar/s2011/Prius_Effect_V1.5.3.pdf

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  40. Anders says:

    I am interested in the basis for concluding that people would install solar on a roof facing the street even if this is not optimum in terms of sun.

    I am working with a 250,000 observation dataset which tells a different story: We see a REDUCED likelihood of solar adoption for houses with south facing roofs towards the street. So, the opposite. Granted, this might then be caused by a “solar is ugly” motivation, but it does at least suggest that the idea that individuals would make a completely stupid investment in solar for the sole reason of “green status” is perhaps not entirely as straightforward as sometimes portraited.

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