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The Eco-Unfriendly Appeal of a Lush Green Lawn

New research from Arizona finds we associate traditional, water-intensive landscaping with high social status.
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Waterfall and palm trees in Arizona. (Photo: MaxFX/Shutterstock)

Waterfall and palm trees in Arizona. (Photo: MaxFX/Shutterstock)

What does your shrubbery say about you?

It may seem like a silly question, but newly published research suggests people infer things about homeowners by looking at their lawns and gardens. And for eco-minded policymakers who are encouraging residents of the American Southwest to opt for drought-resistant landscaping, that’s a problem.

The results of three experiments “suggest that the elements used in residential landscaping have broad symbolic and self-presentational significance,” a research team led by University of Iowa psychologist Rebecca Neel writes in the Journal of Environmental Psychology.

Specifically, lush green lawns dotted with trees and shrubs confer an aura of high social status on a household, among other positive implications. The researchers believe this association may make people hesitant to opt for natural landscapes requiring low water usage.

"When the decision maker chose high-water-use landscaping, they were seen as higher in status, sexual attractiveness, family orientation" and even religiosity.

The first experiment featured 171 students from a large university in the Southwestern U.S. Participants read a short vignette about a man, woman, or couple who moved into a home with either “typical desert landscaping with cacti and other plants,” or one with “typical grass landscaping with trees and shrubs.”

They were told that the homes were “quite similar,” so the only real decision the new homeowner had to make was the type of landscaping. They then rated the person or couple on a variety of characteristics.

“When the decision maker chose high-water-use landscaping,” the researchers write, “they were seen as higher in status, sexual attractiveness, family orientation” and even religiosity. All in all, such people were seen as higher in status as their counterparts with the low-water landscaping.

A second study, featuring 376 university students, added another variable to the mix. Participants read the same scenario and made the same evaluations, but some were told the homes were in a middle-class neighborhood, while others read that they were in a working-class or upper-class area.

Across the board, those choosing traditional landscapes were similarly judged as higher in status.

A final study was conducted online, via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. Fifty-three people from California, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas completed a survey in which they reported which type of landscaping they would choose “if they were trying to convey a specific trait.” Traits included conscientiousness, environmentalism, family orientation, political ideology, masculinity, femininity, religiousness, and youthfulness.

Confirming the results of the first two experiments, “high-water landscapes were selected to communicate higher social status, a more positive general impression, family orientation, political conservatism, femininity, religiousness, youthfulness, agreeableness, extraversion and prosociality,” the researchers write. The low-water option did convey one positive quality (the expected one): environmentalism.

It all suggests that “self-presentational considerations may thus constitute a barrier to the adoption of low-water-use landscapes,” the researchers conclude.

With much of the Western U.S. suffering from a long-term drought, encouraging water conservation is a vital public policy goal; this research provides valuable evidence of one major obstacle toward achieving it. For low-water landscaping to really catch on, it may be necessary to change public perceptions, so that the choice signals affluence and importance.

Is it time for high-end nurseries to start selling designer cacti?