Prius Success Is All About Looks, Says Dan Ariely

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.

Dan Ariely />
Dan Ariely

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.”


  • PaulRivers

    For some reason, the press loves these stories about how people buy a Prius because it looks like a hybrid, bla bla bla. I’m sure someone has, just as other people refuse to.

    But I don’t know anyone that did that. The people I know that bought them (and I’m one of them) did so for one of two reasons -

    1. It’s a hatchback. That means you can fold the rear seat forward and use the entire space to carry stuff – like my bike. Seriously – this is the #1 reason why. If I had bought a sedan, I would have needed a bigger vehicle so I would have had a bigger trunk. With the Prius, I cannot carry 4 people and a bunch of stuff, but I can can 4 people OR a bunch of stuff. It’s not about the looks, but it is about the body style. I also talked to people who say it doesn’t “feel” like a small car.

    2. It’s top of the pack for hybrids – no one else has a hybrid that gets as good of fuel economy. The only other affordable choice is a Honda Civic hybrid.

  • usbseawolf2000

    Prius does look unique. More importantly, it offers a lot of things unique only found in a dedicated full hybrid.

    Jet-smooth quiet electric propulsion that reduces stress in traffic jams. It has a single speed transmission (reduction gear) like an EV. There is no reverse gear (emotor just spin backward) like an EV. It gets better MPG in the city (EPA term) than the highway (defies conventional wisdom). It offers a mid-size interior with hatchback cargo capability.

    Prius drivers smile because the are satisfy with it’s capabilities, not the appearance. In fact, many people think Prius is ugly.

  • Martha

    Interesting article, but not the reason anyone I know bought a Prius and certainly not the reason I bought one, either. If there had been a reliable 100% electric car available at the same time, I would have purchased the electric car. It’s matter of doing what one can to minimize environmental impact. And that is the reason every one I know bought one and the reason others are considering purchasing them.
    Happier drivers? maybe. I do notice that they are certainly more considerate.
    Patting themselves on the back? Not even close to the type of personality that buys a Prius. We’re busy minding our own business doing our part, trading even hybrid drives for bicycling, we’re not the type that need to pat ourselves on the back. We just enjoy participating in a way that makes us happy.

  • usbseawolf2000

    @Paul Rivers

    I completely agree with you as a Prius owner. I see this as an attempt to discredit the true capabilities of the Prius by giving all the credit to the “look”.

  • Anonymous

    when you got the goods, the look is secondary. surly the prius isn’t a success because of solid reliability, tons of room, good fuel economy, and reasonable cost? of course not, it’s the look… not

  • Charles

    Dear usbseawolf2000;
    You said: “Prius does look unique. More importantly, it offers a lot of things unique only found in a dedicated full hybrid.”

    Have you driven a Ford hybrid? Both the Fusion and Escape hybrids offer “Jet-smooth quite electric propulsion”, CVTs and better city MPG. The Prius’ hatchback versatility is because it is a hatchback, not anything to do with being a dedicated hybrid. The HS 250h is a dedicated hybrid, but not a hatchback and lacks the loading versatility of the Prius.

    I do agree that every Prius owner I know bought it for its great MPG and versatility. Some have commented that it is not the best looking car on the road.

  • Anonymous

    While it may be true for some, this theory of Prius owners buying it for looks/image/status is overstated. Many practical and fuel efficient cars are recognizable (e.g., Honda Civic, Honda Fit, Toyota Yaris), but I think these models avoid derision because they don’t wear the proverbial fuel efficiency “crown.” Like the first commenter, my wife and I chose our 2010 Prius for its spacious hatchback and excellent fuel efficiency, but also because of its affordability (with additional help from Cash 4 Clunkers). After considering the Honda Insight (cramped, less efficient), the Honda Civic Hybrid (no hatchback, less efficient) and Ford Fusion Hybrid (pricier, no hatchback, less efficient), the Prius was most practical choice for us and has given us the most bang for our buck. Regarding its looks, I’m mainly grateful that for 2010 Toyota improved on the old Prius design, which frankly I found to be rather fugly. Moreover, if recognizable earth-friendliness was so important, why wasn’t the very distinctive and very efficient first generation Honda Insight a huge success?

  • Shines

    Oh Dan Airhead is just trying to promote his book. The Prius is ahead of the competition because it gets the best mileage. We’ve had this discussion several times before. Paul and Martha et al have it right. The Prius stands out as the best value of all the hybrids and by many folks best value of all vehicles. There’s nothing irrational about owning a Prius. Wearing a bee suit on the other hand…

  • usbseawolf2000

    @Charles,

    I have sat in the Fusion hybrid and ridden in the Escape hybrid. Awesome smooth rides just like the Prius. That’s because they all use the same eCVT power split device. There is no jerking in acceleration like the gas-only jerks. Pun intended.

    Hatchback probably is the best body design for a hybrid because the HV battery can use space provided by the higher roof line. Higher roof line improves aerodynamic and also increases the interior room. It is a win-win.

  • Mr.Bear

    It’s all about the looks.

    That and driving 500 miles on 9 gallons (one tank) of gas. My old Jeep Wrangler would have needed about 28 gallons (two tanks) to make the same distance, costing over $55 more in fuel.

  • Scott Z

    Odd article. Like others have stated. Great mileage and a hatchback. When another company that builds well made cars releases a similar sized vehicle that gets over 60 MPG or I can afford an electric car that can go 300 miles between charging I will by that.

  • Music Man

    @Martha

    I’m ready to go 100% Electric as well, for the environment. I like the idea behind the Volt. As much as I drive, I’ll almost always be using Electric. I probably won’t be able to afford one though. ;( Hopefully these desperate times produce “the new generation” of what we all really want. Uuuuhhh … looks are secondary.

  • Lost Prius to wife

    My wife and I also bought the Prius to save gas, which would help both our wallets and the environment, and for its ability hold large objects, like the box of a Weber Model B grill, through the hatchback with the rear seats down. But I have also used the fact that the electric motor provides nearly instant torque and horsepower.

    Although most people in Colorado are courteous, not everyone is. There have been situations where some thoughtless people have deliberately put my life and/or my wife’s life in danger (deliberate cutoff, deliberate attempts to force us out of our lane, etc.). Those people have found out that the Prius, with a half charge or more on the battery, has a 30 to 50 and a 50 to 70 MPH acceleration much more similar to fuel injected cars with 200/250 horsepower. It drains the battery and uses gas, but our lives are worth it as far as I am concerned. What can be more interesting is the sometimes surprised look on these thoughtless people’s faces as they try to figure out how a hybrid could do what it did and prevent their dangerous actions.

  • Samie

    For the article, honestly I think Dan Ariely misses the boat and he may need to reassess his behavioral economic theories. Clearly as others stated the simplistic theories in this case do not holdup to real world purchasing habits. I don’t see any testing techniques mentioned in this story that proves his hypothesis.

    As for what Lost Prius to wife said, I wonder how those same irresponsible drivers in Colorado will feel when they see the Leaf. The Leaf will double the torque of the Prius (pound-feet). If I was a behavioral economist like Dan Ariely, this would fascinate me. When the Leaf in 3-5 years is produced on a mass scale, we as Americans will have to reassess our ideas of what green means, why V8 is not so important, and inconveniences of ICE engines (ie maintenance & time/cost with pumping fuel). Or maybe I am ahead of myself and a revolution in what Americans think in terms of automobiles will change with the 3rd to 4th generation of electric vehicles. Anyways, electric vehicles will change consumer buying habits but many will not see this until it really happens…..

  • Anonymous

    > he pointed to the reason why the Prius represents more
    > hybrid sales than all 25 of the other hybrids combined:
    > its unique looks.

    I have a Prius, but for sure I did not buy it for the looks. The ‘look’ of the Prius is, what almost made me NOT buy it. I don’t think it is a beatiful desgin – unique? yes – good looking? Not so sure … This is my opinion, but the ‘unique look’ is no reason to buy it.

    The reason I bought the Prius is that I wanted the best combination of:
    - good mpg
    - reliability
    - convenience (like the Hatchback – would have loved a wagon)
    - didn’t need to be too big (since it’s the 2nd car used only for work commute, but I have to taxi the kids from time to time)

    No other car could beat the Prius in my set of priorities (emphesis is on MY priorities – other cars might be better for others). The ‘looks’ of a car are rather secondary to me.

  • Lost Prius to wife

    Samie,
    You are right that the Leaf and other even more advanced hybrids, plug-ins, and electric cars will cause a rethinking of what will be important. Your comment “why V8 is not so important” is just coming true even in the present high end concept cars. The BMW’s Vision and Toyota concept cars use relatively small diesels and ICEs. The BMW’s Vision goes 0-to-60 mph in 4.8-second, puts out 350+ HP, uses a 1.5-liter three-cylinder diesel engine, and still gets 63 mile to the gallon. Some of the Toyota concept cars are 400+ HP, 0-to-60 mph in under 4 seconds, and designed to get in the mid thirties for MPG all from a transverse mounted V6. I have no doubts that they will be capable of 150+ mph (although I am not sure, other than the autobaun, were one might legally do this). How many V8s can reach those numbers and still have MPGs of 35 to 60?

  • veek

    -This looks like someone grasping at straws to make the observations fit their theory (and help sell their book). The styling of the Prius is far more likely a coincidental finding, not a primary one.
    I agree with Martha, seawolf, and anonymous.

    -I completely disagree with the last paragraph of the article — such thinking implies meaningful character change is nearly impossible, and this discourages people from making an effort to productively evolve. Sure, maybe we won’t find some kind of short-term, magical, effortless solution to instantly change people’s minds about global warming, but that’s not even necessary. Instead, people can gradually and productively change their thoughts and habits — in fact, we do this all the time. If we decrease the association of energy over-consumption with Happiness, we can actually change our character in a way that not only helps the environment, but can also make us far happier. Ariely’s argument is sort of like saying, “well, you are overweight and physically unfit, because you emotionally enjoy over-eating. Furthermore, you can do little or nothing to change this.”
    Nonsense.

  • Anonymous

    @Samie,

    “The Leaf will double the torque of the Prius (pound-feet).”

    Do you have source on it? Wonder if that’s at the wheel or you are just comparing from traction motor.

  • usbseawolf2000

    @Samie,

    “The Leaf will double the torque of the Prius (pound-feet).”

    Do you have source on it? Wonder if that’s at the wheel or you are just comparing from traction motor.

  • Samie

    usbseawolf2000 you can correct me if I am wrong but the 2010 Prius has 104-105 pound-feet of torque, that is overall torque. Not torque at the wheels and excluding different gear ratios. And what I can gather the Leaf will generate 206 or 214 pound-feet of torque. What I was commenting on was the acceleration from low to mid range speeds. Sorry I am not an engineer but I honestly feel that most Americans think horsepower not torque gives them zip & that is why electric vehicles will redefine what “power” means to most. Also for too long thanks to the muscle cars of the past, luxury vehicles,monster trucks & SUVs we put great importance on the V8 as a status symbol and belief that it is somehow the best… An example the V8 truck from what I can tell is not needed by most truck owners. They have better options in a diesel or V6 engine but the V8 somehow still symbolizes toughness and power.

  • usbseawolf2000

    Sammie,

    Prius’ gas engine makes 105 lbs-ft torque and the electric traction motor makes 153 lbs-ft.

    You can’t add them up because only 72% of the gas engine’s torque goes out to the wheel through reduction gear (3.267 final gear ratio). The rest turn the generator (*).

    The electric traction motor goes through two reduction gears. It first goes through 2.636 SRU and then the final gear.

    Total torque at the wheel = (105 x 0.72) + (153 x 2.636) x 3.267 = 1,565 lbs-ft

    EVs normally has about 10x final gear ratio. If the Leaf’s motor torque is around 200 lbs-ft, we are looking at around 2,000 lbs-ft at the wheel.

    (*) – Prius is 72% parallel and 28% series because the torque from the gas engine always split in this ratio. The amount of power that it splits depend on the speed of the generator (power = torque x rpm x constant). The less power the generator takes away, the more it goes to the wheel mechanically (think Civic hybrid). The more electricity it generates, the more it acts like the Volt.

  • sri

    As I get older I am growing increasingly skeptical of these “experts”. If we wanted to figure out why the prius is the best-selling hybrid, why didn’t he spend some time inside one and looking at reviews, like most car buyers would, instead of trying to figure it out from the driver’s faces.

    The value of prius is easy to see as many people have pointed out already. If in-your-face hybrid look is all it takes, then the original insight would have been the best-seller (to some extent even the GM hybrids, with their prominent hybrid logos).

    He is supposed to be an economist. If this is what a typical economist think like, no wonder we a re in a mess.

  • Samie

    Thanks usbseawolf2000

  • Anonymous

    Well said SRI. The only new car I’ve ever bought is my 2007 Prius. I’m 57 and have always owned stationwagons or hatchbacks. All I had to do was see the features and drive the prius and I was sold. If I ever have to replace this car it will be with another Prius.

  • GM

    I hate to be the one to tell you this, but somewhere your math is horribly wrong. If the Prius can muster anything close to 1,500 ft lbs of torque it would be quite capable of towing a semi truck at highway speeds and the Leaf could tow the same semi at much higher speeds. I have my doubts about a Prius having the power to do that – I’m just saying…

  • Lynn Wyman

    I bought my 2010 Prius for great mileage, reliability of Toyotas, and good storage space (hatchback). I am in the middle of a 6000 mile trip around the U.S. and so far have documented 53 MPG total economy driving across deserts and mountains at freeway speeds and occasionally in cities. Even took a trip from Seattle up to mount Rainier total 150 miles and got a measured 56 mpg round trip. Computer usually reads 4% high but by comparing miles driven to gallons consumed I have verified the true mpg of this fantastic vehicle. This trip is with two adults and one child. A fill up is usually 9 gallons and at $3 a gallon amounts to $24 for about 470 miles. My previous vehicle (a Toyota Sienna van) got half the mileage of the prius on the highway but of course had more seating space but the size of our family fits well with the Prius. Around town, if I am careful with acceleration, I have received more than 60mpg. Great car.

  • Hal Howell

    I bought my Prius because it gets over 45 mpg on a regular basis and even better on the highway. I like its looks (2007) and the features it has. Since I have grave doubts about the so-called manmade global warming I didn’t buy it for the environment though I do appreciate it pollutes much less than other gas only cars. Lastly, I bought it because like most Toyotas, it will last a very long time before I need to trade it in.