Obstacles and Incentives in Public Spaces

In public spaces, many obstacles are not important enough to be removed or addressed at the individual level, because they do not cause enough inconvenience to an individual to compensate for the cost (in time or risk) of removing them. Few motorists would stop to move a fallen branch in the road, because there is not enough incentive to do so; it is far easier and (depending on the speed limit) less risky to simple drive around it. Summing the benefit of such an action among all the people it would benefit usually yields an incentive far higher than the cost; however, since such an incentive cannot be realized on a communistic basis, few people demonstrate such altruism.

Consider the yard sale sign that stays up long after the sale has ended and directs numerous people to a non-existent yard sale. Even though the sign wastes far more time than it would take for the owner to take it down, the owner has very little incentive to remove the sign. In some cases, wasting peoples time is actually incentived—merchants often continue advertising items they do not have, hoping to lure in customers who will reluctantly buy an inferior item at a higher price, rather than leaving empty handed. I can speculate that such deception wastes millions of man hours annually, in Florida alone.

Avoiding punitive action is a common incentive to avoid creating obstacles in public spaces. Littering is something that in theory, a lot more people would be doing if not for fear of heavy fines. Without punitive action and social pressure, littering tends to cause little harm to the litterer, because he or she probably doesn’t live nearby and doesn’t have to worry about picking up the litter, and is also not impacted by the reduced property values and displeasing aesthetic and environmental consequences. Nevertheless, even without fear of punitive action, there are many people who still would not litter, and even with it, many people still litter. Thus, we might not be able to accurately predict how individuals will respond without a wealth of personal information.

The local Aldi grocery store has an effective incentive for customers to put back their shopping carts: getting a shopping cart requires inserting a quarter, which is only removable when the cart is returned to the stall. It is common to see no stray shopping carts in their parking lot, which is ironic, considering that if returning the cart takes 1 minute, that is a pay rate of only $15.00 per hour—certainly a fair percentage of their customers value their time more than that, even on an after-tax basis. Psychological studies make it clear that small incentives that are not even “fair” compensation can result in long-lasting changes to opinions and behaviors. In contrast, generous incentives often result in transitory changes in opinions or behaviors that “snap back” as soon as the incentive is received. Obviously, some customers will not have a quarter available and will end up buying less with only a shopping basket or their bare hands rather than a cart. This may be why the “shopping cart return incentive” (as I call it) is not common (at least in Central Florida). However, such mechanisms can become part of the culture of customers at a store and, counter-intuitively, can result in them becoming more loyal, vocal, and inured. Consider the culture at “warehouse clubs” such as Sam’s Club, BJ’s, and Costco; these stores have literally created barriers to entry—they have made it harder and more costly for customers to begin to shop there than elsewhere, yet this has an effect that reminds me of pair-bonding, possibly due to social and psychological investment.

If we can apply similar models to the general public, we may be able to get more people to move obstacles out of the way and pick up after themselves. Establishing social norms is a good start. You can do this simply by setting a good example when seen by others. The more people that see you, the better, since they might follow suit, particularly if they see such behaviors on a regular basis.

4 thoughts on “Obstacles and Incentives in Public Spaces

  1. Happy New Year Richard. Just for your information , it is a regular practice of mine to bike around the neighborhood removing all those annoying (and illegal) signs people stick in the ground or attach to sign posts. I feel like a vigilante sometimes, but someone has to do it!

    Hope all is well and you have a good semester.

    Dr. H

    1. Hi Dr. Hoffman! Just saw your comment (I obviously do not check my pending comments too often). That sounds like a fun hobby you have! I actually see quite a few of those signs (recently the ones promising large income tax refunds / loans) but never thought of walking or biking around removing them. I find it hard to sympathize with the business owners who place the signs since they are usually for shady businesses that take advantage of people.

      I am having a good semester as you know from me recently stopping by your office. I hope this 5th week and the rest of the spring 2015 semester goes well for you.


  2. Insightful post, indeed! You have a minor typo, however, in the second paragraph; I believe “the own has very little incentive to remove the sign” was supposed to be “the owner has very little incentive to remove the sign.”

    Other than that, it’s fantastic! Keep it up.

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