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ITS-Davis study finds social influence a key element in transitioning to more sustainable transportation such as PHEVs

Research from the Institute of Transportation Studies, University of California at Davis (ITS-Davis) suggests it will take more than a reasonable price and good information to get consumers to make more sustainable transportation choices, such as the purchase of a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV). Post-doctoral researcher Jonn Axsen says policymakers need to consider another critical and historically overlooked factor: social influence.

While marketers have taken social network effects into consideration in recent years, policymakers are just beginning to recognize their importance. Axsen says his work points to the need for more in-depth synthesis of the role of social interactions in policy design.

Our interactions with friends, families and coworkers affect the way we make decisions, how we value the environment, and how our lifestyle relates to our purchase decisions. Car buyers are not just rational “automatons” affected by price and the availability of product information. Social influence does matter.

It’s clearly time to break out of the simplistic, rational consumer model of behavior when it comes to policy design. Of course, price and information do matter, but social influence is extremely powerful and needs to be explicitly addressed.

—Jonn Axsen

Axsen recently received the “Young Researcher of the Year Award” from the International Transport Forum, an intergovernmental organization comprising 52 member countries convened by the OECD. His paper, “Interpersonal Influence within Car Buyers’ Social Networks: Developing Pro-Societal Values through Sustainable Mobility Policy,” was selected from 40 nominees from 16 countries.

“What we’re finding, especially at UC Davis, is that its takes more than technical solutions to fix our problems; we can’t keep building our way out. We have to increasingly focus on personal, behavioral solutions.”
—Jonn Axsen

Axsen identified five theoretical perspectives on interpersonal influence: contagion, conformity, dissemination, translation, and reflexivity, and applied these perspectives to car buyer perceptions of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs). PHEVs can be perceived as having functional, symbolic, private and societal attributes. The context was a PHEV demonstration project where 275 interpersonal interactions were elicited from interviews with 40 individuals in 11 different social networks in northern California.

  • Contagion. In contagion, influence is transmitted through the point-to-point flow of information—i.e., interpersonal influence as the unidirectional flow of functional information. When a new vehicle technology comes to market, early adopters or experts help transmit information to build the general public’s awareness of the product or practice.

    Contagion, notes Axsen, neglects important nuances of interpersonal influence. One criticism is that functional information is not the only type of information shared.

  • Conformity. Conformity addresses individuals’ perceptions of others’ thoughts and actions, and may best apply to symbolic benefits (private and societal). Conformity includes threshold models, where an individual’s threshold is the proportion of the relevant social system that must engage in the behavior before the individual will join. Thresholds may vary according to the strength of ties with other individuals, Axsen says, s well as physical proximity, structural equivalence, and other factors. However, while conformity conceptualizes the influence of thresholds, it neither represents specific interactions between members of a social group nor explains social norms arise or change.

  • Dissemination. Axsen applied dissemination—defined as “diffusion that is directed and managed” by an organized group—to the provision of societal benefits. As an example, collective action seeks to explains how motivated individuals interact and collaborate to provide societal benefits that would not have been provided otherwise. Collective action approaches look for the appearance of a critical mass: a small group with strong interest in the societal benefit that is willing to contribute resources to sustain more widespread action.

    Dissemination may best apply to interpersonal influence concerning societal-functional and societal-symbolic benefits, Axsen suggests.

  • Translation. Translation is how consumers figure out the personal benefits and costs of the technology. “In this process there is ongoing negotiation between yourself and individuals in your social network. You might ask, ‘I know hybrid cars exist but will they save me money? Will they save the environment? Will my friends make fun of me?’ Working through this process is complex, and it occurs over time and through repeated interactions,” Axsen says.

  • Reflexivity. Reflexivity—the dynamic, continuous, selfaware process of defining and expressing oneself—is how consumers relate that technology to their personal values. “We found that, under the right conditions, consumers will start to change their values and potentially commit to a more environmentally sustainable lifestyle,” Axsen says, especially when an important reference group, such as family or co-workers, also supports that value. The reflexivity process counters traditional marketing models that assume people’s values are firm and unchanging.

    The adoption of an innovation offering societal benefits, e.g., a PHEV, may be one component, or trial, of a more fundamental shift towards a societally-conscious lifestyle, Axsen notes. After adoption, a user may solidify or modify their initial interpretations of the vehicle. Thus, similar to translation, the innovation and its social context are subject to continuous uncertainty and revision of interpretations and meaning.

Applying the five perspectives to PHEV trial participants, particularly reflexivity, helped to identify which households and social networks may be more amenable to developing new, pro-societal interpretations of vehicle technology.

Norton et al. (1998) explain that neo-classical economists’ models, which represent consumer values as static and exogenous, “cannot be expected to correctly characterize or guide decisions that have potential impacts over decades, centuries or longer,” such as sustainable mobility policy decisions. Expectancy-value or rational choice models of behavior suggest only two levers for policymakers to influence consumer behavior: changing cost (via financial incentives or disincentives) and providing functional information about the product or behavior (Jackson, 2005).

In contrast, this research suggests the importance of explicitly representing how interpersonal influence can change households’ values and expressions of possible future behaviors. The government can be viewed as an influential agent, and implemented policies are a form of interaction between the government and car buyers. Careful consideration of how different policies and types of information and experiences influence car buyers can help policymakers to better design mobility policy, predict its effects, and measure its impacts. In particular, policymakers might consider the differences between the processes of diffusion, translation and reflexivity.

...Better representing these interpersonal processes will help policymakers to better understand of how consumers might come to value mobility technologies and practices that offer societal and environmental benefits. As a starting point, this paper points to the importance of: disseminating functional awareness of such technologies, stimulating interpersonal discussion of pro-societal benefits, and marketing to a social network rather than only the individual car buyer. Further research can explore how policy can shape the negotiation of societal values—potentially identifying new strategies for policymakers beyond the conventional levers of financial incentives and disincentives and the provision of functional information.

Future studies may also employ focus group and ethnographic methodologies to more directly observe translation and reflexive processes, as well as quantitative survey methodologies to validate our findings across mobility contexts, including actual alternative-fuel vehicle buyers (as opposed to trial participants).

—Axsen and Kurani

Axsen’s social influence research is a key component of the ITS-Davis PH&EV Research Center’s recently completed second-year report on the PHEV Demonstration and Consumer Education, Outreach, and Market Research Program. The full report summarizes the findings from 67 households that drove a converted Toyota Prius PHEV for four to six weeks between August 2008 and February 2010.

Axsen is currently a post-doctoral researcher with the Plug-in Hybrid & Electric Vehicle Research Center at ITS-Davis. In August, he returns to Vancouver, BC, where he will be assistant professor of energy and materials modeling and policy at Simon Fraser University.




There is logic and emotion, many times a car buy is emotional after the logic. Once more people make the choice it validates that if others think it is a good idea then maybe it is.


This is probably what influenced so many, specially in USA and Canada, to buy huge over weight over powered gas guzzlers since the end of WWII.

We had to show the neighbors and the world our newly acquired opulence.

Very childish immature acquired behavior exploited by many car promoters.


In the 50s and 60s gas and steel was cheap and cars had carburetors. Heavy cars were thought to ride better and be safer. They the 90s people just bought into the SUV craze and those started selling almost as well as pickup trucks. Vehicle buying habits in the U.S. are hard to understand in the rest of the world. We sell more than one million pickup trucks each year and most of them are not used for work.


While this is an interesting theory of consumer behavior - it is far too academic and non-cognitive of simple decision trees. If Mr. Axsen wants to understand how to promote PHEV sales - he should check out PHEV blogs. There you find a clear channel into consumer thought.

How do people choose a certain technology? The anal types do tons of research and reading. The bold go with their gut. The majority listen to each other. These days they read each others' opinion. Opinion from non-stakeholders is highly influential.

The PHEV is in a crown position to sell from all political and social spectra. On the left you have the die-hard greens. On the right you will have (after Rush and Beck etc grasp it) the patriots - who buy domestic to support their cause. BOTH can be satisfied with a PHEV provided the green component is not oversold.

In the end all the feely interpersonal development will not override a pocketbook decision. As long as we have a market and credit-based economy, people will buy cars that save gas money.

As for the psychology of "reflexivity" - it is severely damaged by the disingenuous climate fiasco. Public awareness of manipulation and outright fabrication of this campaign - has killed potential conversion to "sustainable lifestyle." The reason is simple. The climate movement has been caught crying climate wolf. They are now seen as untrustworthy, deceitful solipsists.

The only redemption would be full disclosure based on best intentions. But the climate community has too much pride for that.


Reel$$ -- do you really believe most Americans read the PHEV blogs? Or that they make rational buying decisions? Have you priced potato chips lately?


JM -- I am suggesting the PhD candidate read PHEV blogs. He's trying to asses purchase behavior. Americans listen to friends and neighbors. Witness how we purchase app software today... go to market, find an appropriate app, read a half dozen personal reviews...decide.

This behavior unfortunately diminishes the role of "experts." Where once we relied on the opinion of a select few reviewers... we now have millions of opinions to gauge value and verity by. It is the indulgence of the "Anthropocene."

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