Hey Baby, Is That a Prius You’re Driving? (Ep. 36)

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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.

Rich Becker

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.


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.


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.


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.



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.



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.

Steve S.

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

Joe B.

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.



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.

Andrew Lamontagne

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.



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.


And it makes us look cleaner, too.


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.



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?

Joshua Northey

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.

m henner

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.

Benjamin D. Bloom

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


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.