See-Feel-Smell-Change? Changing Behaviour Without Changing Minds Part II

The essence of an ecological perspective on human behavior is that our minds are rational, but in an ecological way. That is we automatically take into account myriad aspects of our environment using all our senses and adjust our behavior accordingly. When the context changes, our behavior often changes, without necessarily reaching the level of consciousness – we are unaware that we “changed our minds”.

Dog Poo Fairy

Poster from a London Park

A few weeks ago I wrote about the Stockholm congestion charge and how Swedish motorists had changed their driving habits once that had been exposed to the behavioural reality of the road tolls. In many cases they were unaware that they had changed their minds. This week I came across another neat example of behavior change created by changing the context rather than by appealing to people’s intellect. The problem being addressed was the annoying one of dog poop in public spaces. In Canada local municipalities usually put up signs that read something like “Clean Up After Your Dog” to encourage pet owners to do the right thing. When I was in a London park recently I came across the British equivalent, which, in typical British fashion, uses humour to make its point. I liked the poster but wondered how effective it really was. Then I read about the Spanish approach.

A Gift For You by Special Delivery

In the Madrid suburb of Brunete the mayor approached the persistent problem of getting dog owners to clean up after their pets by having an army of volunteers bag and box the poop and send it back to its “owners”. Their modus operandi was to patrol the parks and note whose pets relieved themselves without being cleaned up afterward. They then went up to the dog and patted it admiringly and enquired as to his or her breed and name. That was enough information for them to be able to search the City Hall register and snag a name and address. The offending poop was then bagged and placed in white boxes and returned to its “owners” under the town seal.

The strategy seems to have been very successful. Several months after the 147 boxes were delivered people walking their pets were all, without exception, carrying plastic bags with them. Although some were wary of strangers coming up to them and admiring their animals!

The Power of Context

The power of this contextual approach stems from its creation of an ad hoc community to focus on the issue, which had been a constant complaint in the community-at-large. But until the attention of the community was focused and pointed out in a visceral way to the negligent offenders no behaviour change was possible. The story reminds me of John Kotter’s description in The Heart of Change of how someone seeking ways to cut costs in a diversified manufacturing concern was struggling to get the cooperation of divisional purchasing managers in making shared buys of standard factory supplies. Everyone could all see numbers on the P&L and the scope for savings but that was too abstract a message to move them to action. Eventually he commissioned a student to collect a sample of every kind of factory glove purchased by the seven manufacturing divisions, together with their individual price tags. He then placed all 484 pairs of gloves on the boardroom table and invited the purchasing managers in to inspect them. The sight of all those gloves, together with the wide ranges of prices paid for them finally spurred action. Kotter calls the process see-feel-change. In the light of the Spanish experience with their dog poop perhaps we could add a sense and call it see-feel-smell-change!

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One Response to See-Feel-Smell-Change? Changing Behaviour Without Changing Minds Part II

  1. warren says:

    After years of ‘fighting’ neighbours with noisy
    dogs, I came to the conclusion and action of
    standing with a clipboard by the fence of the
    owners dog. The person would eventually see me
    and ask what am I doing. I told them, as
    instructed by the police, I am documenting their
    barking dog, the time, the address….be submitting
    the report to the police for them to get a $500
    fine. This worked. Sort of touch and feel……
    as you indicate David.

    What perplexes me, is people’s inability to understand
    that a barking dog at 1am, or not picking up dog
    debris, or holding a door open for someone, or driving
    the streets with loud vehicles enhanced by after
    market ‘pipes’………..and on and on……….Why
    people would ‘act’ this way in the first place. Having
    to use reinforcement psychology and/or touch and feel
    psychology to get people to behave as humans toward
    their fellow person……always astounds me.

    It’s as if a good portion of the population was born
    with sociopath tendencies, that are only changed when
    they see a ‘cost’ to them associated with their
    behaviour…not having been born with an ability to
    understand simple respect for a fellow human or the
    community of humans in which they live. Selfishness
    on a grand scale, leaving their ‘mark’ of noise, or
    debris or inaction of letting a door slam in another
    persons face.

    Having to ‘guide’ people into ‘respectable’ behaviour
    through methods of touch/feel/reinforcement is another
    burden on society at large…….showing the human
    condition of selfishness and non-respect is getting
    even worse.

    It’s getting to the point where one will have to put
    up signs and instructions, in comedy or strict form,
    simply to show people that its not ‘nice’ or not
    ‘respectful’ to release their bowels in the street!

    We just heard of a couple who got married, where the
    ‘wife’ threw out half a roast beef the next day,
    because she said left overs are not edible the next

    At the present level of our ‘human condition’, I am
    now understanding, finally, why we are in the mess
    we are in. Extrapolating a blueprint of what is on
    the minds of a huge portion of population, would be
    a sight to see, and would be an incredible indicator
    of showing why things are the way they are today.