Research Summary

Using emoticons to encourage students to recycle

Prompting Students to Recycle Through Using Emoticons

The Journal of Environmental Education

One effective strategy to promote desired behaviors can be to use a point-of-decision prompt: this involves priming people at the time they are making a decision. Point-of-decision prompts have been used in promoting pro-environmental behaviors, such as signs that remind 11 one to turn off the lights when exiting a room. However, previous research has dealt with points of decision after an action or as a way to discourage future actions. In that vein, this paper considers point-of-decision behaviors related to recycling as influenced by negative emoticons: specifically, red frowny-face emoticons. The researchers asked whether prompting students with emoticons on trash cans would result in more pro-environmental recycling behaviors.

The researchers decided to use red frowny-face emoticons as past research has shown that frowny faces can symbolize disapproval, while the red can denote avoidance or “stop” (on stop signs, for example). The experiment had two phases: first, a field study at an elementary school in Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania (known for being a green community); and second, a laboratory study at a northeastern university. The two methods allowed for a more generalizable result beyond the young children. At the elementary school (750 students and faculty), the researchers followed regular recycling patterns over 2 weeks, and then put red frowny-face emoticons on the trash bins for the next 2 weeks. At the university, where 192 undergraduates participated, the researchers told students they were assessing scissors for a market study. The undergrads used the scissors to cut a paper into four pieces. They were asked to dispose of the paper, and then walked past trash and recycling bins outside of the testing room. For some, the trash lids featured an emoticon stuck on the lid; for others, there was nothing featured on either of the bins.

In the first experiment with elementary-school students, the researchers calculated the ratio between how much the recycling weighed and how much both the recycling and trash weighed. A larger ratio suggested that more materials had been recycled, while a smaller ratio meant more material had been trashed. The results showed that, for the two weeks with the emoticons, the ratio was significantly higher in terms of recycling than the weeks without. For the second experiment with the university students, when the frowny faces were present, students were significantly more likely to recycle their paper than when they were absent.

Both of these experiments suggest that the presence of frowny face emoticons affected young people’s behaviors. Although adolescents and young adults are often less responsive to more intensive environmental programs, this research suggests that simple point-of-decision prompts, such as emoticons, can positively impact desired resulting behaviors.

The Bottom Line

During environmental programs and/or interventions, using small prompts at key points of decision can be a simple way to encourage pro-environmental actions. For example, placing red frowny-face emoticons onto trash cans next to recycling bins may offer an inexpensive, effective way to encourage people to use the recycling rather than the trash bin. Such a technique is likely to be most helpful when paired with an existing environmental education curriculum.