Even the most well-intentioned residents don’t always recycle. According to a recent set of studies, the reason why may be more complicated than just laziness or a lack of access.
In tests recapped recently in the Harvard Business Review, researchers found two biases that affect disposal habits.
The first is called distortion bias. People are more likely to throw an item away if it has been altered in some way. Whole pieces of paper, for example, are more likely to be recycled than paper that has been torn into pieces, and dented cans are more likely to be tossed into the garbage than pristine ones. Researchers say people view altered items as useless, or no longer having a purpose.
A factor called identity bias was also discussed in the study. This idea posits that people are more likely to recycle something that is linked to their own self-image. For example, the researchers used cups from coffee shops that had customer names written on them.
If a name was spelled correctly, it was recycled more often than not. If the name was spelled wrong, the cup was more likely to get trashed.
Researchers also stated moral licensing can affect recycling behavior. According to the study results, the option to recycle is tied to how much of an item is used. Researchers told people ahead of time whether or not they would be able to recycle the items they were using – such products included scrap paper, wrapping paper and plastic cups.
The study found those people who knew they could recycle the items used more of the material.
The Harvard Business Review story was written by Remi Trudel, a marketing professor at Boston University and one of the lead researchers on the recycling studies.