It probably comes as no surprise that when it comes to lawn care, most of us are motivated by a desire to keep up with the Joneses.

What may be surprising is that the Joneses aren’t keeping score. Our need to keep up our lawns’ appearance, it seems, is mostly in our heads.

“People really are driven by a craving for acceptance in their neighborhood,” said Tom Blaine, an economic development specialist with the Ohio State University Extension and one of the authors of an OSU study into homeowners’ lawn care attitudes and practices.

But it’s not really peer pressure behind that desire, he said. It’s the perception of peer pressure.

The study, published in 2012 in the journal Environmental Management, looked at the results of a survey of 432 Ohio homeowners conducted by OSU’s College of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. The researchers chose Ohio not only because that’s where the university is located, but because Ohio is considered to be in the American mainstream on lawn care issues.

The survey found that the most influential factor on lawn care practices is what the neighbors do. Cost and ease of use figure in, too, but not as much as the desire to fit in.

Quite simply, if your neighbors apply chemicals to their lawns, you’re more likely to do the same. If they hire lawn-care companies, you’re more likely to do that, too. If you don’t, “you may feel self-conscious about it,” Blaine said.

It’s not because the neighbors would gossip otherwise. It’s because homeowners really want to be accepted and be seen as good citizens, he said.

Reverence runs deep

Our reverence for beautiful lawns runs deep in our American culture. Since the late 19th century, the lawn has been seen as a tool of social good, both a symbol of individual land ownership and visual evidence of a sense of community, the study says. A well-kept lawn is seen as reflecting a person’s character and social commitment.

There’s evidence to support the perception that lawns are good. Lawns provide a number of benefits, the study notes, including helping to cool and clean the air, improving soil and groundwater, deterring crime and even reducing our exposure to some diseases.

But there’s a well-documented down side, too. The chemicals we use widely to keep our lawns looking their best can be hazardous to us and to the quality of our water.

Those negative effects, however, don’t always affect homeowners’ decisions about whether to treat their lawns with chemicals.

The vast majority don’t even know what goes on their lawns, the study shows, and Blaine said their neighbors’ practices may give them a false sense of safety. Their thinking is, “Hey, it can’t be that bad if it’s all over the neighborhood,” he said.

What does all this mean?

If people are to change their ways, they need to believe the neighbors will approve, Blaine said. They won’t embrace alternative lawn-care methods — be it organic lawn care or some other method that hasn’t been developed yet — unless the neighbors are doing it, too.

That’s why the study’s authors argue that educational efforts need to be directed at neighborhood groups, not individuals.

Blaine thinks it would take a concerted effort, but he believes the very same perception of peer pressure that drives homeowners to treat their lawns could eventually push them to change their behavior. Some are likely to resist at first, but once a certain percentage of people accept the new ways, “I think that peer pressure will kick in,” he said. They’ll go along with the pack because they don’t want to be looked upon as outcast.

It’s all about what the Joneses do.

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