The Prius as an Oddly-Shaped Status Symbol

Hybrid cars are more or less functionally the same, but one came to dominate the market because of its purposefully weird design.

Alex Grimm/Reuters

The mid-2000s Toyota Prius was a weird-looking box of metal: Viewed from the front, it sloped upward with swollen curves. From the back, it was chunky and pug-nosed.

But from a marketing perspective, the Prius’s visual oddness was a selling point. While other car companies designed their hybrid vehicles to blend in with the inoffensive smoothness of the typical midsize car, Toyota sculpted the Prius to stand out. Its aesthetic distinctiveness is one reason for the car’s success in the past decade: In 2010, nearly half of all hybrids sold in the U.S. were Priuses. (Since then, the Prius hasn’t fared as well, but neither have hybrid cars in general, in part due to falling gas prices.)

Now the Prius’s curves are proving useful to another group: environmental researchers. People who study consumer behavior have long suspected that buyers are willing to pay more for environmentally-friendly products because those products are status symbols—but it’s been difficult to say just how much more willing. To these researchers, the Prius’s release is a natural experiment: The Prius is functionally the same as other hybrids, so any disproportionate success it sees might be attributable to its aesthetic differences.

That’s the basis of a study to be published next month in the journal Ecological Economics that estimates that the status-symbol premium attached to the Prius, in comparison to other hybrid cars, is about $600, or five percent of its value. This premium differed by geographical area, and ranged from about $400 in the southeast to a little over $1,000 in New England. The researchers arrived at these numbers by comparing the values and sales of the Prius and its competitors in different regions. (The researchers determined that Toyota’s brand strength and the Prius's marketing campaign couldn't account for the discrepancy they found.)

These results are in the same neighborhood of the estimates from a similar 2012 study, which suggested that car buyers are willing to pay between $430 and $4,200 extra to buy a hybrid as evidence of their conscientiousness. The authors called the phenomenon “conspicuous conservation.”

Environmentally-friendly behaviors typically go unseen; there's no public glory in shortened showers or diligent recycling. But when people can use their behavior to broadcast their own goodness, their incentives shift. The people who buy Priuses and solar panels still probably care about the environment—it’s just that researchers have found that a portion of their motivation might come from a place of self-promotion, much like community service does good and fits on a résumé.

Environmentalists have long wondered about the best ways to influence the behaviors of the masses, and it appears that appealing to people’s selfishness can be a useful strategy. The devilish problem with fighting climate change, from the perspective of the behavioral economist, is that the threat exists too far off in the future. This creates a temporal buffer that makes the cause seem less urgent.

A study in Psychological Science published online last month investigated an interesting way of dissolving that temporal buffer. The authors theorized that people who were forced to think about their own legacies—how they would be seen by future generations—would be more likely to care about protecting the environment. In one experiment, some subjects were asked to write an essay about what they wanted to be remembered for, and another group didn't write an essay. Both groups were later told that they were entered to win a small cash reward and were asked how much of that reward they'd be willing to donate to an environmental charity. The essay-writing group pledged on average 33 percent of their possible reward, while those who didn't dwell on their personal legacy only offered up 23 percent.

Psychological researchers have warned that relying on human selfishness to save the environment is only narrowly useful because it might not affect their behavior in general. Appealing to people's self-image, these researchers caution, might sway them to recycle a plastic bottle once, but it won't compel them to take the subway next time they're given the chance to drive. That may be true, but the benefits of conspicuous conservation shouldn’t be dismissed on those grounds. When it comes to the environment, self-interest is better than no interest at all.