We all grew up being told that being willing to share our toys with others was a virtue, and none of us was ever completely convinced. Now it seems that the real secret to getting people to share may be not to appeal to their better nature but to offer them convenience and the ability to have somebody else attend to the drudgery.
When Fleura Bardhi, an associate professor at marketing at Northeastern University, and Giana Eckhardt, an associate professor at Suffolk University, set out to study the psychology of car-sharing, they believed that it was fueled by socially-conscious people who cared about preserving the environment and establishing a trusting community.
After interviewing forty users of the Zipcar service in Boston, however, they found out it was no such thing -- but that the system manages to work anyway, and the participants are enthusiastic about it.
"It was one of those situations where we both drank the Kool-Aid on collaborative consumption, on sharing," says Bardhi. “We really thought this would be very pro-social, pro-collaboration, pro-environment. We were starting with this theoretical baggage."
Most of those attracted to the service are young urban professionals and students who intend to have cars of their own some day but are just as happy for the moment if someone else deals with the burdens of ownership and maintenance. Several of the users noted, for example, that they feel no compunction about mistreating a vehicle, because they know that "some magic car fairy will come and fix whatever is not right with it later."
They also feel no particular sense of responsibility to their fellow users. They are unresponsive to Zipcar's attempts to get them to socialize with one another and will gladly walk off with umbrellas or other left-behind items -- although Zipcar's system of oversight and penalties prevents more serious abuses.
Bardhi and Eckhardt even found two cases of individuals who violated Zipcar's no-smoking rule by renting cars just so they could smoke pot in them without their spouses finding out.
For all those reasons, the researchers don't believe the phenomenon should be described as "sharing," which typically refers to family members bound by a sense of mutual support. Instead, they call it "access-based consumption" and suggest that Zipcar's marketing campaigns has been very effective in making renting seem as cool as owning.
But Ziploc should probably ditch the message boards and the attempts to get members to wave at one another as they pass by. That's just not what their service is about.
Image of car via Shutterstock