Social Influence and Sustainable Transport: What Your Friends and Family Think Does Matter

May 2011

New award-winning research from ITS-Davis suggests it will take more than a reasonable price and good information to get consumers to make more sustainable transportation choices. Post-doctoral researcher Jonn Axsen says policymakers need to consider another critical and historically overlooked factor: social influence.

“Our interactions with friends, families and coworkers affect the way we make decisions, how we value the environment, and how our lifestyle relates to our purchase decisions,” Axsen says. “Car buyers are not just rational ‘automatons’ affected by price and the availability of product information. Social influence does matter.”

While marketers have taken social network effects into consideration in recent years, policymakers are just beginning to recognize their importance. Axsen says his work points to the need for more in-depth synthesis of the role of social interactions in policy design. “It’s clearly time to break out of the simplistic, rational consumer model of behavior when it comes to policy design. Of course, price and information do matter, but social influence is extremely powerful and needs to be explicitly addressed.”

Axsen has just received the prestigious “Young Researcher of the Year Award” from the International Transport Forum, an intergovernmental organization comprising 52 member countries convened by the OECD. He travels to Germany to accept the award at the Forum’s annual summit May 25. His paper, “Interpersonal Influence within Car Buyers’ Social Networks: Developing Pro-Societal Values through Sustainable Mobility Policy,” was selected from 40 nominees from 16 countries.

Axsen’s social influence research represents the heart of his Ph.D. dissertation, which he completed here at UC Davis in June 2010. He has since been a post-doctoral researcher with the Plug-in Hybrid & Electric Vehicle Research Center. In August, he will return to his native Vancouver, BC, where he will be assistant professor of energy and materials modeling and policy at Simon Fraser University.

Jurors explicitly commended the innovative dimension of his analysis. “Jonn Axsen’s paper is well suited to change the perspective of politicians responsible for transport and to broaden their basis of decision-making,” said jury representative Dr. Andreas Scheuer, Parliamentary State Secretary, Federal Ministry for Transport, Building and Urban Development, Germany.

Axsen said he hopes the award signals increased global recognition of the importance of behavioral research in transportation and energy. “What we’re finding, especially at UC Davis, is that its takes more than technical solutions to fix our problems; we can’t keep building our way out. We have to increasingly focus on personal, behavioral solutions.”

Axsen’s paper identifies three types of social influence among car buyers. The first, contagion or diffusion, simply means people learn from each other. When a new vehicle technology comes to market, “early adopters” or experts help transmit information to build the general public’s awareness of the product or practice. During the early market introduction of hybrid vehicles, for example, consumers become aware that the technology exists and might cut down gasoline use.

The second process is translation, or how consumers figure out the personal benefits and costs of the technology, Axsen explains. “In this process there is ongoing negotiation between yourself and individuals in your social network. You might ask, ‘I know hybrid cars exist but will they save me money? Will they save the environment? Will my friends make fun of me?’ Working through this process is complex, and it occurs over time and through repeated interactions.”

The third process, reflexivity, is how consumers relate that technology to their personal values. “We found that, under the right conditions, consumers will start to change their values and potentially commit to a more environmentally sustainable lifestyle,” Axsen says, especially when an important reference group, such as family or co-workers, also supports that value. The reflexivity process counters traditional marketing models that assume people’s values are firm and unchanging.

Axsen’s social influence research is a key component of the PH&EV Research Center’s recently completed second-year report on the PHEV Demonstration and Consumer Education, Outreach, and Market Research Program. The full report summarizes the findings from 67 households that drove a converted Toyota Prius PHEV for four to six weeks between August 2008 and February 2010.

Axsen credits ITS-Davis researcher Ken Kurani and PH&EV Center director Tom Turrentine with fostering his pursuits. “They recognize the importance of pushing into new research directions that allow cross-pollination of technical, behavioral and policy-oriented research, all of which are necessary to solve our global sustainability challenges. ITS-Davis has built this unique approach into its structure.”

Read Axsen’s award-winning paper

Read Axsen and Kurani’s paper in Environment and Planning A

Read the PH&EV Research Center Report

Learn more about Jonn Axsen