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Lessons for your business from public urination

Bri Williams /

Two interesting signs have been doing the behavioural rounds recently. Both attempt to stop the disgusting problem of public urination and, believe it or not, are helpful examples of how to modify customer behaviour.

Bad stuff happens when you do bad stuff

First to the streets of San Francisco where the sign below uses the threat of public shame to prevent public pee perpetrators. (I call this, “Wee are watching.”)

Source: Economic Policy Journal

This is an example of punishment. The behavior (peeing on the wall) has an undesirable consequence (public shaming).

Punishment is commonly used in business to penalise late payers, for example. Here’s one from my phone bill where they punish me with $15 if I miss the payment date.

Source: Supplied

The bad stuff stops when you stop what you’re doing

Now let’s visit the streets of Hamburg, Germany, where walls coated in water-repellant that make the pee rebound on the perpetrator. (I call this, “Pee’d off wall.”)

Source: News.com.au

This is an example of negative reinforcement – the unpleasant thing (pee splashing on your shoe) stops when you stop the behaviour.

Hunger is an example of negative reinforcement. We don’t like the feeling of being hungry so we modify our behaviour (i.e. eat something) to provide relief. In your car, the annoying warning beeps when you are not wearing your seatbelt is another example of a negative reinforcer being used to modify behaviour.

Some clever businesses are using negative reinforcement rather than punishment to deal with issues like on-time bill payments.

Here’s an example from my gas company, which offers a “pay on time” discount for customers.

Source: Supplied

Which to use? The wall or the watching?

A key difference between punishment and negative reinforcement is that when I do the wrong thing, with punishment you do it to me (i.e. charge me a late fee) whereas with negative reinforcement, I do it to myself (i.e. pay on time so I can pay less).  

Also, with a negative reinforcement you are modifying the behaviour taking place right now, whereas with punishment you are punishing past behaviour in the hope that it will influence future behaviour.

For these reasons negative reinforcement is usually a more effective strategy to modify behaviour. When customers feel like they are making the decision themselves, and relief is immediate, they will be much more likely to change what they do.

Bri Williams runs People Patterns, a consultancy specialising in the application of behavioural economics to everyday business issues.

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Bri Williams

Bri Williams is Australia's foremost authority on behavioural economics applied to everyday business and personal effectiveness. Author, speaker and leading consultant, Bri can make your life easier through behavioural science. More at www.briwilliams.com.au.

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