UC-Davis researchers are looking into why people buy hybrids. Instead of having them fill out checklist forms, they’re sitting down and interviewing buyers for up to two hours.

They have discovered, shockingly, that people are not rational maximizing machines who put together spreadsheets on the relative merits of auto choices along various axes — fuel economy, size, quality, etc. — over a lifetime.

No, turns out purchasing a car in America is largely an emotional decision, one bound up with issues of identity and values.

This is a bit of a head-slapper, but for some bizarre reason the mainstream press doesn’t seem to get it.

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To those of us who do get it, perhaps the more interesting question is: What values are people expressing when they purchase a hybrid?

This (via Treehugger) is from an interview with the researchers on HybridCars.com:

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There are common meanings that run through our interviews. And there are often some individual meanings as well. Preserving the natural environment is the obvious meaning of the hybrid, but it’s a lot deeper than that. What we hear from people is that when they buy a hybrid vehicle, it expresses their vision of a better world, and their desire for a society and a world where people work together for common goals.

That’s powerful stuff, the kind of stuff politicians wish they could bottle.

Visions of a better world sell. Apocalyptic doomsaying doesn’t. Environmentalists, take note.