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The Toyota Prius is by far the most popular hybrid car because it’s immediately recognizable as an earth-friendly car. At least, that’s the explanation offered by Dan Ariely, the behavioral economist who wrote Predictably Irrational. Ariel was in Seattle last week on a tour for his new book, The Upside of Irrationality.
Ariely’s books combine neuroscience, economics, and personal observations to explain how emotions—rather than rational economic logic—drive us to make odd choices in life.
“This is my personal observation,” said Ariely, “When I drive and I see people driving Priuses, they look to me like they smile more than others.” Ariely explained that Prius drivers want to stand out, to pat themselves on the back as they drive down the road, and to make it crystal clear that they’re driving a hybrid. (This observation has been made many times before, most notably by the creators of Comedy Central’s South Park, who portrayed hybrid drives as smug snobs. Very funny stuff.)
Ariely is not commenting on whether or not hybrids are good for the environment. He believes they are, according to a March 2008 posting on his blog. But he’s trying to better understand what motivates a hybrid purchase, with the idea of creating incentives for fuel efficiency that will move the masses. Ariely believes that seeing the gas price every time we fuel-up makes it more psychologically painful to drive a less efficient car, and at the same time, constantly reminds us of how little we spend on gas compared to other cars.
Theory Put to the Test
At the Seattle gig, he pointed to the reason why the Prius represents more hybrid sales than all 25 of the other hybrids combined: its unique looks. There have only been two other hybrid-specific cars—the Lexus HS250h and the first and second generation Honda Insight. The HS250h doesn’t scream out its identity as a hybrid—so drivers can’t broadcast their green stripes—and the 2010 Honda Insight looks nearly identical to the Prius (while not competing on the logical factors of fuel efficiency, space, and cost).
Time will tell if Ariely’s observation is true. There are certainly a lot of hybrid drivers who wouldn’t get close to a Prius because of its space-age jellybean looks. Regardless, more unique green car nameplates are on the way, including the Honda CR-Z hybrid coupe and a yet-to-be-named unique Hyundai hybrid, as well as the all-electric Nissan LEAF (which certainly has an identifiable look) and the Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid (which doesn’t stand out nearly as much).
Ariely is a master at explaining why people act in ways that are clearly not in the best interest of their own pocketbook or of society. At the Seattle venue, he shined some light on why so little progress has been made on global warming. “If you tried to create a problem people would not care about, it would be global warming,” said Ariely. “It’s long in the future, it will happen to other people first, you don’t see anybody suffering, it’s hard to see evidence, and anything you do is a drop in the bucket.”