Courtesy Counts: Exploring Alternative Interventions

By Teis Jorgensen (ideas42)

Proper subway etiquette is lacking in New York, and the MTA (Metro Transit Authority) has responded with Courtesy Counts, an ad campaign prescribing social norms for good behavior on the subway. As revealed in last week’s post, similar ad campaigns have been tried across the globe for decades, yet the problems persist: people still crowd the doors, lean on the poles and spread their legs across several seats. So why do these social norming campaigns seem so ineffective?

In order for these campaigns to change behavior, people must (1) be aware of the norm and (2) feel urged to follow the norm. When asked why the campaign isn’t working, most New Yorkers quickly gravitate toward the first reason: a businessman remarked, “Are people really reading [the posters]? They don’t catch the eye;” a worker for the MTA agreed, saying, “If more people saw them, they’d work more.”

The idea that more information leads to more action underlies many efforts to fix a behavioral problem. The problem with this theory is that people don’t always translate their knowledge of what they should do into action. If they did, we’d all be celery-munching marathon runners with perfect self-control, and I would have found a nice image to break up the text here.

The truth is that knowing about a social norm and actually following that social norm are far from the same thing. The MTA’s current strategy for making people care about norms relies heavily on people’s intrinsic desire to be courteous. Their slogan, “be someone who makes it a better ride for everyone,” is effective as long as people wish to be perceived as courteous.  For this reason, the campaign enjoys some success—for example, by teaching self-conscious people (like me) who wish to be courteous that removing a backpack during rush hour can help save space.

On the other hand, the greatest limitation to the success of an etiquette campaign is that people must be attentive: attentive to the message and attentive to their behavior. Therefore, even if commuters successfully internalize the messages of the campaign, they may not change their behavior, because they are not mindful of their actions. In fact, we all suffer from limited attention – so although I may have the best intentions to remain courteous, I may not give up my seat to a pregnant or elderly person simply because I fail to notice her presence.

Therefore, although we may be able to improve a social norming campaign in myriad ways – better poster design, catchier messaging, greater visibility of ads, increased social accountability, etc. – these adjustments may not be enough to overcome people’s inattention. So perhaps the MTA should instead focus their efforts on creating nudges that encourage good behavior without requiring people to make the active decision to be courteous.

As discussed last week, most of our decisions and actions are influenced by our context. Train station designers across the globe have used this insight to design a simple intervention to improve flow in and out of the train:

Arrows in Los Angeles, Paris and Hong Kong inform people on the platform where the train doors will open and encourage people to stand clear of the center in order to allow passengers to exit the train. 

Arrows in Los Angeles, Paris and Hong Kong inform people on the platform where the train doors will open and encourage people to stand clear of the center in order to allow passengers to exit the train. 

A few weeks ago, the MTA followed suit, installing the following signage in two stops in Manhattan:

The left photo was taken a month ago at the 51st street stop on the 6 train. A similar nudge can be found at 59th street, shown in the bottom right graphic.  

The left photo was taken a month ago at the 51st street stop on the 6 train. A similar nudge can be found at 59th street, shown in the bottom right graphic.  

The MTA will be testing the effectiveness of this nudge in the coming weeks before deciding whether to scale it to all stations. At a glance, however, this nudge seems more likely to succeed than the original Courtesy Counts poster. It’s both more visible and timelier than an etiquette poster: you are likely to look down at the platform to determine where the doors will open, and when you do, you’ll be reminded to step aside as you wait for the train to come. In fact, you would have to actively choose to ignore the message to step in front of the opening train doors.

There are similar small changes that could be made to a train car to address other problems around etiquette. For example, let’s take the problem of crowding the doors inside the subway car:

In general, I hypothesize that people entering a subway car without available seats will default to standing where it is most spacious and comfortable. I say “default” because in many instances I do not make an active choice about where I want to stand – I simply enter a train and will not move further into the car unless there is a reason to keep going.

In this case, people can be nudged to move into the center of the train car in several different ways. The easiest would be to simply point the way:

Arrows printed on the floor of the subway can serve as a gentle reminder for people to keep moving into the center of the car. 

Arrows printed on the floor of the subway can serve as a gentle reminder for people to keep moving into the center of the car. 

This nudge is reminiscent of the platform nudge described above: the hope is that a gentle visual cue may be enough of a reminder to encourage passengers to continue moving into the car.

Beyond just pointing the way, you could also change the context of a subway to make standing around the doors less comfortable. An extreme solution might be to shine a bright light around the doors, every time they open. In this case, passengers may feel uncomfortably illuminated when blocking the doors and choose to step out of the spotlight and into the interior of the car.

A more palatable solution would be to rearrange the poles in the subway car. Currently, the newest generation of New York subway cars is designed with poles clustered in front of the doors:

Many NYC subway cars are designed with most of the poles around the doors. This means that people will tend to congregate in the red areas, right by the doors. 

Many NYC subway cars are designed with most of the poles around the doors. This means that people will tend to congregate in the red areas, right by the doors. 

A solution to bring people further into the cars is to simply move the center poles further inside: 

With a simple redesign of the arrangement of subway poles, people would be more likely to step away from the doors.

With a simple redesign of the arrangement of subway poles, people would be more likely to step away from the doors.

By providing more handholds further away from the doors, people will be more likely to take the extra step or two inside and leave room for others to enter.

Whatever the details of the intervention, we should take a hint from 70 years of failed etiquette campaigns and think beyond a poster for creating real change. As one woman I interviewed said, “Most New Yorkers just don’t give a ****.” If that’s the case, it’s time we stop relying on people’s attention to courtesy and instead design a subway system that nudges positive behavior—especially if the solution could be as easy as painting some arrows on the floor or moving a subway pole a few feet further inside the car.