Nudging Drivers, and Pedestrians, Into Better Behavior

Daniel Pink's new series, Crowd Control, premieres tonight on the National Geographic Channel.
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Daniel Pink's new series, Crowd Control, premieres tonight on the National Geographic Channel.
What if there were more of an incentive for people to slow down? (Photo: National Geographic Channels)

What if there were more of an incentive for people to slow down? (Photo: National Geographic Channels)

As regular readers of Pacific Standard know, researchers are continually coming up with new insights into the ways we think, feel, and act. But can their findings be made entertaining enough to keep notoriously short-attention-span viewers in front of their TV sets for a half-hour or more? And can this be done without sensationalizing the material, or dumbing it down?

That’s the challenge best-selling author Daniel Pink, whose discussion of the science of motivation is one of the 10 most-watched TED talks of all time, set for himself with Crowd Control. The 10-part series premieres at 9 tonight (ET/PT) on the National Geographic Channel, and if the fast-paced first episode is representative, he has succeeded splendidly.

"Lawbreakers," the season opener, manages to convey a whole lot of information without either lapsing into jargon or making breathless, over-sized claims. While it utilizes ivory-tower research, its roots are firmly planted on the street—literally so, in fact.

This episode is about non-violent violations of the law by drivers and pedestrians—actions that are too common to make the news, yet create all sorts of problems.

This episode is about non-violent violations of the law by drivers and pedestrians—actions that are too common to make the news, yet create all sorts of problems. With cameras rolling, Pink conducts some clever experiments to see if people can be nudged into better behavior. He finds that, in many cases, they can.

The first segment is a fine example of outside-the-box thinking. If the threat of fines won’t stop people from exceeding the speed limit, Pink asks, what if we approached the problem from the opposite direction and rewarded them for obeying the speed limit?

After footage of some dumbfounded but delighted drivers receiving $10 bills for driving under the limit (“They should do this more often!” one man exclaims), Pink recreates an experiment that was first conducted in Sweden in 2010. On a busy street in an unnamed American city, he sets up familiar-looking flashing signs that show passing motorists how fast they are going. Only these note that people traveling under the limit will be eligible to compete for a cash prize of $100.

After briefly explaining the psychological power of “intermittent rewards” (which is what keeps us playing slot machines), Pink reports the number of cars speeding on that street was reduced by one-third when the program was in place. Sometimes possible rewards are more effective than potential punishments.

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Daniel Pink and his team installed a camera to run a sweepstakes to reward drivers for good driving behavior. (Photo: National Geographic Channels)

A segment on discouraging jaywalking utilizes two other motivating factors: Instilling fear, and avoiding boredom. At a busy intersection, “shock signs” are installed reading “Be late, not dead. Don’t jaywalk.” At another, a simple electronic game is installed to give people something to do while waiting for the light to change. Pink reports the number of jaywalkers at that site dropped from 20 per hour to two per hour.

The most compelling segment, however, deals with handicapped parking spaces. Pink travels to Austin, Texas, for some “vigilante justice in the parking lot.” In a van with four people in wheelchairs, he travels around the city, looking for illegally parked cars. Then he has the driver pull up next to the offending vehicle, so that it can’t move.

When the driver returns, the four passengers slowly emerge from the van, one by one, via a wheelchair ramp. It’s great television, and a fine demonstration of the power of shaming. “I’m doing being that guy” who parks in handicapped spaces, one driver sheepishly insists.

Afterwards, Pink installs photos of some wheelchair-bound drivers at a bank of handicapped spaces, to add a personal touch to the “no parking” directive. He then shows great footage of car after car pulling into one of the spots ... and then pulling out after the driver has second thoughts. “After a month of observation, we haven’t seen anyone parking illegally (in these spaces),” he announces.

That last bit of news is important. As with so much of this research, the question lingers of whether a startling sign or cash incentive will gradually become easily ignorable background noise. The qualities that give such behavioral nudges staying power would be a great topic for a later episode.

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