Penguins Slide Head First! (Mis)behavior at the Museum

By Dave Nussbaum (Chicago Booth & Behavioral Science and Policy Association)

As the father of two young kids, I spend a lot of my weekends in our local Chicago museums. As a behavioral science enthusiast, I spend a lot of time looking for interesting examples of (mis)applied behavioral economics. Recently these habits converged when two signs caught my attention, one at the Shedd Aquarium and the other at the Nature Museum. I snapped some pictures to share on Misbehaving.

The one at the Nature Museum won’t blow your mind with its ingenuity, but I think it says something important about a particular kind of nudge that makes people stop and think, rather than trying to automatically channel them toward a particular behavior. But the aquarium sign, despite its good intentions, could probably be Exhibit A in a what-not-to-do manual for aspiring sign-makers.

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There’s a penguin exhibit in the basement of the Shedd Aquarium that draws in lots of kids who love to watch the little Rockhopper penguins frolic in their arctic habitat. After about two minutes (if you’re lucky) the kids’ attention is drawn to the play area right next to the exhibit, which is designed to look just like the penguins’ home. Kids can even put on costumes to become proper little penguins as they clamber up the rocks and whiz down the ice slides.

At the bottom of the slides, Shedd put up a cute little sign to discourage the youngsters from sliding head first. I did not collect any data, or try to randomly assign any of the kids (I got enough funny looks for taking pictures of the sign instead of my kids), but I can pretty much guarantee that the sign was counterproductive.

A sign near the slides in Chicago's Shedd Aquarium

A sign near the slides in Chicago's Shedd Aquarium

First, it’s worth noting that many of the kids are too young to read (and those that can don’t spend a lot of their aquarium time carefully reading signs), so the only information the sign conveys to them is a picture of happy penguins sliding head first. If you look carefully, in the bottom right part of the sign, there’s some sort of depiction of an arrow with disembodied feet, presumably facing the right direction. I don’t know about you, but this is a penguin habitat, so I’ll do what the penguin’s doing.

For the kids who do read the sign (and there probably are one or two who read it almost every year), the sign says, “Penguins slide head first. Kids, please slide feet first!” So even setting aside reactance – the tendency of three-year-olds (and forty-three-year olds) to want to do exactly the opposite of what they’re told – this is still pretty problematic. Aren’t I playing in a penguin habitat, dressed up as a penguin? I’m pretty sure I should be acting like a penguin too.

It’s not as if no kid ever spontaneously stumbled on the idea of going head first down a slide. But this sign conveniently suggests the idea, tells kids that penguins do it, and makes it look like they’re having a great time. Luckily the chances of injury on this 3-foot-long slide are pretty minimal, otherwise I think there’d be a pretty good foundation for a lawsuit.*

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After a quick lunch at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, I took a couple of sandwich wrappers and a half-eaten apple over to the garbage cans. A little confused as to which materials could be recycled, I was about to take the lazy way out and throw them all in the trash.

My (semi-conscious) rationalization tends to be that the amalgam of Styrofoam and cellophane I’m throwing may or may not be recyclable, and if it isn’t, I may be doing more harm than good by trying to be environmentally conscious. But the sign on the wall behind the garbage can interrupted me: “Stop! Can that be recycled?” it asked me, only slightly judgmentally. With a moment’s consideration, I realized that at least some of what I was throwing out definitely could be recycled, so I did, and threw the rest in the trash.

A sign on the wall behind the garbage cans at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum in Chicago

A sign on the wall behind the garbage cans at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum in Chicago

What’s interesting to me here is that it only took jolting me out of my regular routine for a second to change my behavior. And the way that it changed my behavior was by getting me to think just a tiny bit more, rather than making the best of the fact that I’m usually not thinking much at all.

Nudges, according to Thaler and Sunstein, are supposed to be “choice preserving” but this one goes a step further and is “choice enhancing”. I easily could have read the sign and decided to throw everything in the trash anyway (assuming that it didn’t make me feel guilty, but that’s a story for another day). Instead, I got to make a considered decision about my behavior.

This nudge isn’t unique in this respect, but I think it’s worth trying to use this approach when it’s practical. When I put the donuts in a cupboard, or place the cashews just out of arm’s reach, I’m trying to make it ever-so-slightly harder for myself to make that choice. I’m creating a “hassle factor” to make myself pause – even if just for a moment – to consider whether I really want that cruller, or if I’m just reaching for it because it’s there. 


*The sign is reminiscent of the one Bob Cialdini and his colleagues write about in the Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona. The sign reads: “Your heritage is being vandalized every day by theft losses of petrified wood of 14 tons a year, mostly a small piece at a time.” It’s an instruction manual: here’s an idea (steal some petrified wood), and here’s exactly how to do it (one small piece at a time)! Compared to a sign that just asked people not to remove the wood, the existing sign led to four times more theft – it even led to more than twice the theft as when there was no sign at all. Perhaps the folks over at Shedd should take note.