The housefly etched in the urinals of Amsterdam

Divyaansh Chhipa, FY BSc

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Set the scene at Schiphol Airport, Amsterdam. The airport bathrooms have become a traveller’s nightmare, being messy and unsanitary with spillage in the men’s washrooms. How does the management solve this unusual and unconventional problem faced by the travellers and cleaning staff alike? One word, Nudging. 

The management understood well that strict rules and penalties only work when dealing with kids, not adults who flaunt the rules due to lack of care. What solution did they implement?

Placing an image of a housefly into the urinals.

Simple? Ingenious? Hilarious? All of the above. Playing at men’s natural and predictable instinct to aim, using a urinal is turned into a game. Subconsciously aiming at the housefly, the spillage was reduced and the hygiene skyrocketed. 

The Concept of Nudging

In the world of economics, some concepts can alter the way we perceive decision-making, leading to profound societal changes. One such revolutionary idea that earned its creator a Nobel Prize in Economics in 2017 is the concept of nudging. This innovative approach, championed by Richard Thaler, explores the subtle art of influencing people’s behaviour without imposing restrictions or changing their incentives drastically.

At its core, nudging is about using behavioural data and using it to influence the way choices are presented, and then guiding them toward better decisions. Thaler and his collaborator Cass Sunstein argue that individuals often deviate from rational decision-making due to cognitive biases. These biases can lead us to make choices that aren’t in our best interest, whether it’s about saving money, improving health, or making sustainable choices.

Why does Nudging work?

Nudging works by modifying the ‘choice architecture,’ which refers to how choices are presented to individuals. For instance, placing healthy snacks at eye level in cafeterias can encourage people to make healthier food choices. 

Similarly, in the realm of personal finance, nudging has played a pivotal role in encouraging people to save more. Simple measures like automatically enrolling employees in retirement savings programs with the option to opt-out, instead of opting in, significantly increase the number of people saving for their future.

Governments and organisations worldwide have embraced nudging to address various societal challenges. In the United Kingdom, the government used nudges to increase organ donations significantly. By changing the default option from ‘opt-in’ to ‘opt-out,’ the number of people willing to donate organs after death saw a substantial rise.

In the example of the airport in Amsterdam, the nudge works because it taps into the male psyche, using a visual cue to guide behaviour without any forceful intervention. It’s a prime example of how a small, clever alteration in the environment can lead to significant changes in human behaviour, making public spaces cleaner and more pleasant for everyone.

Ethical Concerns of Nudging

The concept of nudging offers a fresh perspective on how we can address societal problems without resorting to strict regulations or mandates. By understanding human behaviour and incorporating nudges thoughtfully, we can pave the way for a society where making beneficial choices becomes the default option.

So the next time you shop on Amazon and look at the “Best-Seller” and “Frequently bought together” sections, think about the housefly etched in the urinals of Amsterdam. 

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