Made You Look!

July 1, 2009

"Choice architecture" is suddenly a sexy idea, thanks largely to a recent book called Nudge. A nudge, as authors Richard Thaler (an economist) and Cass Sunstein (a legal scholar) explain, is a little intervention in our daily lives from the unseen hand of an engineer or a designer that subtly encourages a behaviour, presenting options in such a way that we're inclined to do the socially beneficial thing. It tricks us into eating our spinach. Some of the most ingenious examples come from traffic-engineering departments. On a dangerously winding stretch of Lake Shore Drive in Chicago, the city dealt with speed-caused fatalities by painting lines on the road. The lines become more tightly spaced on the curves, giving drivers the illusion that they're speeding up-and so those drivers slow down. (In 1996 here in B.C., on a soporific stretch of Highway 5 between Little Fort and Blackpool, engineers first installed those now-familiar "rumble strips" on the shoulder hem of the lane, which function as alarm clocks if you drift onto them, producing "Holy crap, I'll never do that again!" moments that may change driving habits permanently.) Other intriguing examples abound. It turns out people can be nudged to save more money (by manipulating the psychology of pension plans) or to use energy more efficiently (if a hydro meter is installed in a place where they can actually see their energy consumption as it happens). Should we be worried about the coercion implicit in such tactics? Well, there is coercion in any tactic, as Thaler points out: "There's no such thing as a neutral environment." The salad bar is either in the front or the back; the hydro meter is either in view or not. It's better to choose the better thing, and the experts make no apologies for stacking the deck that way.

Nudges matter because if you take action early in a behaviour chain you're attacking problems at the level of prevention, not repair-and preventing problems is a lot cheaper and less trouble. That's one of the reasons Barack Obama is such a huge fan of the concept. He thinks this sort of "libertarian paternalism" might help show America the way out of its economic woes, by getting a lot of people doing small responsible things from the get-go. (He appointed Sunstein, his former law-school pal at the University of Chicago, to his administration, as his "regulatory czar.") Choice architecture has made designers the new "unacknowledged legislators of the world," and from Mumbai to Vancouver, their modest acts reverberate and produce big, if sometimes hard to quantify, changes in the behaviour of the masses.

Four summers ago, the deer problem on the North Shore was officially out of hand, and the District of North Vancouver's wildlife committee was pressuring city council to take action. The problem was this: too many deer were getting creamed by cars. Carcasses were routinely being dragged from the asphalt of Mt. Seymour Parkway and Lower Dollarton Highway. The culprit, of course, wasn't the deer but the drivers. Deer will cross roads; drivers on such stretches need to reduce their speed. And too many drivers weren't, despite the presence of Slow: Deer Crossing signs.

James Ridge, then the district's chief administrative officer, called up Cameron Stewart and asked him if he had any ideas. Stewart isn't a psychologist; he trained as a sign painter and now heads up the district's sign shop. But Stewart was known for making signs that people actually obey. His niche is what might be called novelty signage: sober authority in the design paired with almost corny whimsicality in the message. He has persuaded dog owners to poop-scoop with signs like Dog Guardians: In a World Where Everyone Is Looking Out for Number One, Who's Taking Care of Number Two? And walkers to route around public gardens with signs like These Flower Beds Are Now Metric: Please No Feet.

The deer problem was obviously more serious but its mechanics were the same. The human mind responds to sensory clutter-for instance, the blizzard of marketing messages we're exposed to each day-by attending only to what's novel. That's the problem with those familiar yellow deer-crossing signs: they're so familiar, they're effectively invisible. Stewart knew something quite different was required. He'd been experimenting with Native artwork of a symbolic deer. He had roughed out a design "just to process the idea," and it was up on his easel when in walked a colleague, one of the district's most conservation-conscious workers. The fellow wasn't in a good mood to begin with, and it got worse when he saw Stewart's attempt at lateral thinking.

"You might as well put a fucking kangaroo on there," the colleague said, shaking his head. "Right then the light went on," Stewart recalls. "I looked for a kangaroo in my clip art, and I didn't have one. But I had camels and rhinos."

Stewart made some mock-ups and took them to council. It was a surprisingly easy sell, partly because a councillor had seen one of Stewart's dog signs on Jay Leno's show. In the fall of 2005, up went the camel and the rhino. And the problem, well…went away. The number of dead deer plunged from a dozen a year to one, sometimes two, according to Stuart Kyle, whose job it is to pick up the carcasses. Was it entirely the signs? "We asked that question, too," Stewart says. "Maybe the deer population has gone down? Maybe they don't go the same route any more? We're not 100 percent sure." It seems fair to say that it was mostly the signs, though. The incongruity of an African land mammal in North Vancouver snaps drivers out of their trance and makes them suddenly alert, alive at the wheel.

Yellow fish grace storm drains in continental North America, in Hawaii, in Britain, in Europe, in Australia-pretty much everywhere. Exactly where the first one came from is the stuff of urban legend. The truth is, they started here in Vancouver, in 1981, when a Fisheries and Oceans Canada employee named Joe Kambeitz had a problem on his hands.

Kambeitz was-and still is-a community-services adviser whose job boils down to "working with the public to make things better for salmon." Back then, Kambeitz was growing frustrated at having to turn down people who wanted to volunteer their time cleaning up local streams of all the crap from wallboard to beer cans to shopping carts that was clogging them. As it happens, Environment Canada-overzealously, in Kambeitz's view-allows only a short window in the summertime for people to actually put their gumboots into the water; anything outside that is deemed to disturb the habitat of salmon fry. Kambeitz wondered how to put the perishable enthusiasm of those volunteers to work year-round.

One big threat to streams is what environmentalists call "non-source" pollution. "A lot of the pollution you generate as a household goes right down your storm drain," Kambeitz says. "In some watersheds in the Lower Mainland here, if it hasn't rained for two or three weeks, the first half-hour of rainfall is toxic to fish: it'll kill 'em deader than a doornail. That's from carwashes, motor oil, brake fluid, paint thinner-all this chemistry that dries on the street and then, come rainfall, goes foaming and frothing down the grate. It doesn't then go into the sewage-treatment system; it goes into the local ravine that your kids play in, and right into the river. You never realize you just knocked off a hundred coho."

Kambeitz had been working as a commercial artist and had just come off a job painting markings in the parking lot of a fish hatchery on Vancouver Island. People were getting lost trying to find the display area, so Kambeitz had put down a trail of yellow footprints to guide them. Now he was thinking about salmon: the simple outline of a fish, with its adipose fin. Yellow fish painted beside storm drains might similarly guide people-in this case, in what not to do.

Kambeitz realized that rather than draw the fish freehand, it'd be easiest to cut a stencil into a newspaper. ("The Province is too small, but a half sheet of the Vancouver Sun was the perfect size.") He also realized that a yellow fish on the pavement could be confusing. "So at the same time as people were putting down the fish, others were going to every single door in the neighbourhood with pamphlets explaining what the mark meant, and offering things like home tips for clean streams."

The plan moved ahead, but there were hitches. Latex paint came to replace the original mustardlike acrylic because teachers didn't want kid volunteers getting their hands on paint thinners. That caused its own problems. "The latex was going everywhere, and some of the kids didn't bother with the templates," Kambeitz says. "So now every single storm drain fish looked like a five-pound squashed canary." Kambeitz reluctantly scrapped the paint-and-stencil idea for (much more expensive) rubberized stickers that you pound down with a hammer. But soon neighbourhood kids were diligently vandalizing them. "The moment you went around the corner they'd peel up the goddamn sticker," Kambeitz recalls. "In defence, I came up with another idea. We had a competition to come up with the most lifelike artificial dog turd. We mixed chocolate and porridge and hand-formed them. We put the dog turd down right next to the fish sticker. You'd put your boot print down on it to really make it look lifelike. And now the kids who came out to peel up the fish wouldn't touch it." For the general population there was a learning curve to the whole concept. "Somebody thought it was the initiative of the government"-that the feds marked the drains where you couldn't dump anything, Kambeitz recalls. "So if you didn't see a mark it meant it was safe to dump."

Twenty years on, what can we say about Kambeitz's iconic little fish? Around here at least, most people recognize the yellow salmon and, perhaps consequently, many people know that a storm drain connects to a local stream, Kambeitz believes. It's probably an exaggeration to say that a kid who puts a fish mark by a storm drain becomes an environmentalist for life. But there does appear to be a link between participating in the program and feeling personally invested in the cause, and the outcome. One enterprising group of students in Coquitlam attempted to put some data behind the claims. They applied 500 storm drain markings in residential and industrial areas, and hand-delivered pamphlets explaining them. A year later they returned and queried people. Did they know what the markings meant? And had they changed their behaviour? The respondents overwhelmingly said they did, and they had.

"Before the fish, people would go out into the alley and empty their carpet-cleaning trucks and whatnot," Kambeitz says. "After the fish, not only did they not do that anymore, they started watching their neighbours to make sure they didn't. A concrete place that's washing down its equipment, somebody who's painting the bedroom-people will turn in their neighbours in a heartbeat if they've gone out there and marked a storm drain."

This winter, in keeping with a grim trend in B.C. in recent years, has been marked by the spectre of skiers dying after ducking under out-of-bounds ropes at resorts and riding the backcountry cream into oblivion. How does this happen? Do people not see the signs? Can anything be done to deter them? If ever there were an application for choice architecture, it's this.

Or so it seems to Pascal Haegeli. The Swiss-born Vancouverite is a postdoctoral fellow at SFU's School of Resource and Environmental Management-and is almost uniquely qualified as an expert in avalanches. After starting out in the natural sciences (his PhD is in meteorology-the actual physical mechanics of avalanches), Haegeli now studies the social dimension of avalanche prevention. For the last four years, in a project commissioned by the Canadian Avalanche Centre, the 37-year-old has been systematically studying the habits of back-country skiers and, more recently, out-of-bounds skiers, to help them make better decisions in future. The judgment calls made by skiers on the edge between not-wild and wild are often flawed, Haegeli believes, because of a complex nexus of human foibles. People often just don't behave very rationally here. The landscape that unfolds beyond the ropes of a ski area is a binary place. It is either perfectly, serenely static-apparently safe-or else all hell is raining down: an avalanche.

One approach worth trying, Haegeli believes, is to make the "choice point"-where skiers make the decision to either cowboy on ahead or not-very distinct. And to make the messages themselves emotional, intuitively persuasive. "On the Grouse Grind in the wintertime there are these huge signs that say, basically, you're going to die," Haegeli says. "People seem to ignore them. They don't really relate to the message." Something is wrong with those dire, blared warnings. They don't seem real-at least not real enough to matter in the moment, out there, when the alternative to caution is an exhilarating payoff. But "what if the consequences of actions can be calculated and projected to a person in real time?" That was a question designer and "user experience researcher" Jan Chipchase posed recently on his blog. It sounds high-tech, but in fact "consequence warnings" can be as simple as pictures on signs.

"I just did a case that settled in Canada where a poor little 10-year-old girl dived into a lake and became paralyzed," says Michael Wolgater, a professor of psychology at North Carolina State University and a renowned "warnings" researcher. Wolgater is often called on as an expert witness by plaintiffs-the injured party-in negligence cases. In this case he was hired by the attorney for the girl's family. Where that girl dived, Wolgater argues, "there should be signs that say, You Could Be Paralyzed. Good pictorials actually show the head hitting the bottom. I've seen one go so far as to show a wheelchair." Consequence information works, the literature suggests-in as much as it makes people think about being more cautious and sometimes actually behave more cautiously. The more vivid and explicit the warning, evidence suggests, the more cautious people become.

In ski areas, Haegeli suggests pairing the two emotionally charged techniques. "At a choice point where you have to make a challenging move you put up a sign and you show a consequence: like a photo of an avalanche that has happened right there. When people can directly relate their action to that sign, the connection will be a lot stronger." A similar strategy is in place in North Vancouver's Lynn Canyon, near the suspension bridge, where the cliffs over the deep water invite intrepid, drunk teens to try their luck (knowing, or not, about the whirlpools that form under the waterfalls and suck swimmers to their death.) There are plenty of signs blaring dire warnings: Danger. Extreme Hazard. But there are also these: little memorial gravestones with the names and expiration dates of young people who made an irremediably bad choice.

Get the Newsletter

Own your city with Vancouver’s thrice-weekly scoop on the latest restaurant news, must-shop hotspots and can’t miss events. Rest assured your email is safe with us.