Flies in the Urinals.


The NYTimes reports that the flies in the men’s-room urinals of the Amsterdam airport have been enshrined in the academic literature on economics and psychology. The flies — images of flies, actually — were etched in the porcelain near the urinal drains in an experiment in human behavior. After the flies were added, “spillage” on the men’s-room floor fell by 80 percent.

According to Richard Thaler, behavioral economist at the University of Chicago and the co-author (along with Cass Sunstein) of "Nudge," the explanation is simple: men like to aim at targets. Thaler says the flies are his favorite example of a “nudge” — a harmless bit of engineering that manages to “attract people’s attention and alter their behavior in a positive way, without actually requiring anyone to do anything at all.”

Thaler and Sunstein call this type of behavioral modification “libertarian paternalism," a phrase that links the opposing concepts of freedom from constraint and firm, well-intentioned guidance.

Mr. Sunstein and Mr. Thaler say that this apparent contradiction is reconciled through what they call “choice architecture.” This is the deliberate imposition of structure in an environment — etching flies in a urinal — to induce people to make better choices. Consider a cafeteria where healthy foods like fruit and yogurt are placed in a prominent location, while junk foods are relegated to an out-of-the way spot. People are free to choose, but they are being nudged toward healthier decisions.

Their book and blog explore all kinds of nudges to encourage people to save more, invest more wisely, drive safely and wear bike helmets. Their ideas are often funny and always thought-provoking.

And that's gotten me to thinking about nudges that we could create to make us act more rationally and efficienctly in the workplace.

For example, people complain regularly about the useless "Reply All" emails that clog their inboxes and consume their days like a plague of locusts. Telling people not to use "Reply All" except when truly necessary doesn't seem to work -- even though it's clearly in everyone's best interest. Fed up with the burden of this electronic garbage, the Neilsen Company created a nudge by completely removing the "Reply All" button. (Actually, that might be closer to a "shove." A nudge would have moved the button to an inconvenient position on the toolbar.)

Similarly, turning off the email alerts is a nudge that would help us stop grazing at the email trough and process email only a few times a day.

What kind of nudges could you come up with to get meetings to start and end on time? A former boss of mine locked the door of the meeting room at the appointed start time -- though of course, as president of the company, he could get away with that.

On a larger canvas, what nudges could we create to encourage us to allocate our time to our projects more wisely and realistically, rather than chronically overcommitting ourselves and failing to deliver on our promises? What's the fly in the urinal for that?

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