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.

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  1. 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?

      Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 1
      • 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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  2. 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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  3. 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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  4. 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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  5. 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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  6. 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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  7. 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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  8. 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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