Nudgespotting: Social Norms in Bangkok


Welcome to a special Thai edition of Nudgespotting! I've been seeing some really fantastic nudges during a week-long trip in Thailand, so I thought it would be great to take a deeper look at some of Bangkok's finest behavioral design tweaks (with a focus on nudges that set and enforce social norms).



Particularly important to the efficient function of public services are robust and near-universal social norms. A social norm is a behavior that is accepted and expected in a specific context among a specific population. As examples, think of door-holding and tipping: it's customary in most countries to hold the door for the person behind you, and an 18% tip for food service is accepted as normal in the United States.

Social norms tend to be robust in places with non-transient populations. So a city without many tourists, visitors, or newcomers may not have a need for small design tweaks that enforce norms. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Thailand, known as the "Tourist Country," welcomes 2.5 million visitors each month, leaving a potential for discord among norms and expectations in public places.


Establishing norms around escalator use

Popular with both tourists and locals, the Skytrain is Bangkok's above-ground train system (they also have a subway). As I entered the train terminal, the first nudges that I spotted were these:

On the escalator, there are reminders on the left and right of the escalator steps, suggesting that riders use the left side for walking, and the right side for standing.

I was impressed by this for a couple of reasons (I live in New York City, so I'll use that city as a reference). First, no system of reminders for standing right and walking left on escalators exists in NYC (that I know of). Watch escalator etiquette in Grand Central Terminal for a couple of minutes - it can get pretty chaotic. And second, even in places that have messages like these, often they're painted on the escalator stairs themselves, meaning they get blocked if they are in use (see this previous Nudgespotting post for examples):


Establishing norms around boarding on the Skytrain

Once I entered the train platform, I noticed another couple of really effective nudges, both directing proper boarding etiquette for the train itself:

The yellow arrows direct people to queue up behind one another, out of the way of exiting passengers. Pretty simple - though the question with any nudge is: how well does this actually work?

From a small set of personal experiences, it seems to work really well. I regularly saw people form neat lines behind the yellow queuing arrows, leaving the area in front of the opposite-facing black arrows clear for departing passengers.

This very basic system of nudges is far superior to anything in the New York City Subway (MTA). The best comparison is a small ad that the MTA places inside some of its trains. Another Misbehaving Blog author covered these, but the specific ad is this one:

A simple but powerful insight from behavioral science is that the timing of information matters. While the NYC Subway ads are well-intentioned, they don't really come at the right time, since they're only visible when in a train (after boarding!).

The Thai Skytrain nudges work because they're simple, and these prescriptive designs come at the right time (before boarding).


Bangkok city planners are professional nudgers

Overall these are some of the most effective norm-establishing nudges I've ever seen. They're simple, timely, and don't fail the usability test.


Have you spotted a nudge in the wild? Feel free to send them our way by:

We might feature you in an upcoming post!