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Tuesday, April 29, 2008

There's a Fly in My Urinal

If you visit the Amsterdam Airport Schiphol, and if you're a guy (or maybe that doesn't even matter -- I mean, it is Amsterdam after all), you may notice a fly in each of the urinals in the bathroom. Yes, in the urinals. These "targets" are etched into the porcelain in an effort to improve aim and prevent excess spillage.

Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein of The New Republic address this important issue:
    As all women who have ever shared a toilet with a man can attest, men can be especially spacey when it comes to their, er, aim. In the privacy of a home, that may be a mere annoyance. But, in a busy airport restroom used by throngs of travelers each day, the unpleasant effects of bad aim can add up rather quickly. Enter an ingenious economist who worked for Schiphol International Airport in Amsterdam. His idea was to etch an image of a black house fly onto the bowls of the airport's urinals, just to the left of the drain. The result: Spillage declined 80 percent. It turns out that, if you give men a target, they can't help but aim at it. In the grand sweep of global affairs, dirty bathrooms may be a relatively minor problem. But, by placing fly images on its urinals, the Amsterdam airport was using a technique with broad applications in the world of business and even politics. We call that technique "choice architecture." A choice architect is anyone who influences the context in which people choose -- say, by deciding what order to put menu items in, or what path to encourage shoppers to take through a supermarket, or what information to give investors about their retirement savings options, or what to tell patients deciding how to deal with a medical problem. Because seemingly tiny changes in the environment can influence behavior, choice architects wield immense power. Theirs is a gentle power, since they merely nudge rather than coerce. But their nudges can have major effects.
Some men may need more than a nudge, but this certainly is a start.

1 comment:

Chris Wilde said...

This is brilliant. I think a lot of petty rules and ordinances could be replaced by a little smart manipulation of human nature. We just need to start re-assigning some of those Madison Avenue types to more practical jobs.

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