The good guys began wasting energy as they moved toward the norm, but the bad guys got a little better. It was, Schultz said, the first empirical evidence of the "boomerang effect."
But the results were quite different in the second group. The good guys who got a happy face continued their efforts at conservation. The bad guys who were given the frowning face improved, but no more so than the underachievers who were given only the factual information.
What that means, Schultz said, is just giving people the facts, thus telling them that lots of other folks out there are losers, can backfire. But a pat on the back can make all the difference in the world.
This may sound a tad trivial, but Schultz cited several studies of marketing campaigns that focus on problematical behavioral patterns that have actually "increased the undesirable behaviors and misperceptions they set out to decrease."
While in New York recently, Schultz says he saw a billboard warning that one out of every four eighth-graders has been drunk.
"That raises my concern," he said. "It's an alarming statistic, but what's it going to do to the eighth-grader who reads it?"
A kid who has never been drunk, and told only that many of his friends probably have, could end up trying it himself, Schultz said, although he said his specific research didn't prove that.
It seems reasonable to assume that's the case, and a simple happy face isn't likely to stop it. But the message in this research is that simply warning someone of dangerous social activity isn't enough, and could make the situation worse.
Schultz thinks one way to solve the problem is to build on the fact that we all tend to move toward the norm, but nobody really wants to be average.
If someone is performing above average, and is encouraged to stay there, that becomes part of "your sense of self, your sense of identity and who you are. It will become tied up in those things that make you unique. And so as you come to know how you're different from the norm, or from the group, that sense of identity is going to have very long-lasting effects on your behavior."
The bottom line? Nearly all of us want to be different. Not too different, of course, but just better than the rest.