Aiming to Please (the Janitor): a Field Experiment

New research shows the context dependence of behavioral nudges in men's rooms.

Posted Apr 01, 2016

Note to readers: this article was originally published as an April Fools' Day hoax on April 1, 2016.

This post was contributed by guest blogger Liana Masons, Ph.D. (Head of Research at The Nudging Corporation)

If you’re familiar with applied behavioral science, you’ve almost certainly come across the concept of ‘nudge’ or ‘nudging.'

According to Thaler and Sunstein (2008, p. 6), a nudge is:

any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behavior in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives. To count as a mere nudge, the intervention must be easy and cheap to avoid. Nudges are not mandates. Putting the fruit at eye level counts as a nudge. Banning junk food does not.

Creative Commons
Source: Creative Commons

There is one particular design that has become a very popular illustration of nudging: the fly etched on the urinal. This nudge is meant to steer male bathroom goers’ attention and aim to a more central location in the urinal, thereby preventing spillage as much as possible. More recent creative variations on this theme include a green pitch with goalposts (in the U.S.) or a soccer goal (in the rest of the world).

Unfortunately, we still only poorly understand the effectiveness of nudges, such as urinal goals, in different contexts. We recently conducted two large-scale field studies (no pun intended) to test some of the conditions under which urinal goal nudges may differ in their effectiveness.

Ingroup-outgroup study

Alain Samson
Source: Alain Samson

We designed our first experiment to test the effect of visual cues on the urinal. More particularly, we were interested in the effect of club logos displayed behind the goal (Team A or B, e.g., Barcelona or Real Madrid) on the behavior of different fan subgroups (Team A or B, e.g., Barcelona or Real Madrid). We tested two alternative hypotheses.

1. Psychological theories on approach-avoidance motivation inspired the first hypothesis. From this perspective, a stimulus that elicits a positive emotional response will induce motor responses of physical approach. This would lead us to expect that the aim of a particular team's fans improves (is more on the mark, on average) when they encounter a urinal nudge that features their own team's logo—an ingroup or identity-congruous cue.

2. We based the second hypothesis on ingroup-outgroup distinctions, particularly the outgroup derogation phenomenon. The hypothesis suggests that an incongruous logo would be more successful—behaviorally similar to scoring a goal and/or debasing the rivaling team.

In the experiment, we identified 12 pairs of soccer rivalries (Arsenal vs Tottenham in the UK, AC Milan vs Inter in Italy, etc.). We randomly assigned teams in each pair to either the Team A or Team B groups. We then collected data in a total of 73 locations (bars, pubs) across Europe that were known to be frequented by fans from predominantly one of the rivaling teams. The study lasted for four weeks, which allowed us to rotate and test experimental conditions at each location for a two-week duration. Rotations were counter-balanced. The urinals were cleaned daily. Cleaning staff, who were unaware of our hypotheses, reported the condition of the urinals at the end of the day on a five-point scale ranging from very dirty (one) to very clean (five).

Alain Samson
Source: Alain Samson

Our results from 71 locations (two locations had to be removed from the analysis, as the stimuli were vandalized during the trial period) provide support for the first hypothesis (see graph). This may appear counterintuitive to some readers, as an improved aim in the identity-congruous context essentially implies scoring an own goal. But it is less surprising from the perspective of approach-avoidance motivation, which suggests positive affect, better attention, and an approach of the identity-congruous “target.”

Regulatory fit study

Creative Commons
Source: Creative Commons

Our second experiment provided an alternative perspective from the psychology of motivation: regulatory focus and regulatory fit. This theory differentiates a promotion focus from a prevention focus in self-regulation. The former involves the pursuit of goals that are achievement or advancement related, characterized by eager pursuit. The latter focuses on security and protection, characterized by vigilance. Prevention and promotion orientations are both a matter of enduring dispositions and situational factors. However, some goals are more compatible with a particular strategy, resulting in a higher level of “regulatory fit." Research in this domain has found that messages, cues or frames that are congruous with each other tend to produce better behavioral results. For example, an advertisement for health food that stresses avoiding disease is a better fit with taglines like “don’t miss out on being healthy” or “save $." If the same ad promotes well-being, it is more compatible with taglines like “get healthy” or “get $ off." Congruence promotes processing fluency.

In the context of urinal goal nudges, we manipulated the regulatory goal of individuals by putting up a sign above the urinal that either read “Please help us save money on cleaning costs: Don’t miss the target” (prevention frame) or “Please help us promote cleanliness: Be on target” (promotion frame). As part of another manipulation, to induce regulatory fit, we added a small plastic figure of a soccer player to the front of the urinal goal. The figure was either a goalkeeper or a striker. Past research on regulatory focus has found that goalkeepers are associated with prevention focus and strikers with promotion focus.

The study took place at three universities in the UK over the course of four weeks, following the same basic design as the first experiment.

Results support a regulatory fit theory. Urinal goal nudges are significantly more effective when there is regulatory fit (see graph).

The author
Source: The author

Research on behavioral nudges often lacks insights on the effect of different contexts on behavior change. The results of our field experiments on urinal nudges addresses this shortcoming. In future research, our understanding of urinal nudges could advance further by testing the effect of other targets across different subgroups. For example, research in the US could use symbols representing different presidential candidates or parties and study their effect in establishments frequented by predominantly Republican vs Democratic voters. Temporal context may also be important in the deployment of urinal nudges. For example, on the day of this article’s publication, it is likely that American urinals would benefit from targets in the form of tiny images representing a (1040) tax form. It’s April 1st. The filing deadline for personal income tax returns is approaching fast, and most Americans aim to comply.

Relevant literature

Elliot, A., & Covington, M. (2001). Approach and avoidance motivation. Educational Psychology Review, 17, 73-92.

Halvorson, H. G., & Higgins, E. T.  (2013).  Focus: Using different ways of seeing the world for success and influence. New York: Hudson Street Press.

Hewstone, M., Rubin, M., & Willis, H. (2002). Intergroup bias. In Richard J. Crisp (Ed.), Social Psychology 3 (pp. 323–344). New York, NY: Routledge.

Higgins, E. T. (1998). Promotion and prevention: Regulatory focus as a motivational principle. In M. P. Zanna (Ed.), Advances in Experimental Psychology (Vol. 30, pp. 1–46). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Lee, A. Y., & Aaker, J. L. (2004). Bringing the frame into focus: The influence of regulatory fit on processing fluency and persuasion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 86, 205-218.

Thaler, R. H., & Sunstein, C. (2008). Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth, and happiness. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.