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Why a nudge is not as good as a wink ~ it’s far better - by Phil Hesketh


As I stared down at the urinal, there, right above the drain, was a house fly. Not a real one but a perfect facsimile, expertly drawn and lovingly baked into the porcelain bowl. Now, I've visited Australia so I'm used to seeing weird things in rest rooms. Like two way mirrors at the urinals so that as you relieve yourself the people on the other side of the two-way mirror are none the wiser. They have one at the MCG. They love that kind of thing down under. But this was different.

The presence of a fly in a urinal 'nudges' the behaviour of human males. According to May Berenbaum of Cornell University there's a deep-seated human instinct to aim at targets. I guess that's why merely flicking a spoonful of rice pudding in the school dining room wasn't satisfying enough – you had to actually hit someone to make it fun.

Happy days.

In the case of Schiphol, having a fly to aim at in a urinal reduced 'human spillage' by a whopping 80%, resulting in a major saving in maintenance costs. Although there was one diligent cleaner who spent three years trying to remove the flies.

But why insects? Why not ducks or snakes or a picture of the Prime Minister? Well, the original fly idea was proposed almost 20 years earlier by Dutch soldier Jos Van Bedoff. Whilst serving in army in the 1960s, he observed that when discrete red dots were introduced into the barracks' urinals, there was a dramatic reduction in 'misdirected flow.'

Two decades later he proposed to the airport authorities that they do likewise but with etched flies. Why he waited twenty years to suggest this nobody knows but, with no enemy to fight, I guessed they smoked a lot of weed in the Dutch army in the 60s. I like to think that Jos woke up one day in the 80s and said "Oh, yeah, man, that fly idea..."

So why does it work? Well, according to the psychologist Keiboom, it's because guys want to directly aim at an animal they can immobilise. What's more, the ability to use one's 'natural gifts' and achieve victory over the enemy while standing is also key.

For me, an important 'driver' is that the fly on the porcelain allows an individual to make a choice on where they aim. It's an influential 'nudge' in the right direction which can be more successful than a command or fait accompli. This last phrase is French for 'swat with rolled up magazine'. Supermarkets employ the same principle by putting products they want us to choose just below eye level. It's like bringing kids up - don't ban stupid choices, but rather, create non-punitive incentives for good ones.

The problem is that humans think poorly when the choices are overly complex or can be delayed without immediate cost. So the answer seems to be to keep the 'nudges' simple. This will not only reduce the number but also the frequency of bad choices.

And finally, do you know why men's trousers have an area at the front called a fly? No, me neither. That one remains a mystery.