In a recent post, Daniel Pink introduces us to the idea of Emotionally Intelligent stop signemotionally intelligent signage. You’ll find a fun and provactive video on the idea here (and only 7 minutes long). It’s a compelling idea as far as it goes in the video. Then he missteps in his blog by endorsing signs like the one you see at the left. The concept demonstrably falls down when you try to use an empathetic appeal like this one to stop cars. Here’s why.

First his idea: Some signs are merely informational (This way to Terminal F). They don’t need to appeal to the emotions. Other signs attempt to change our behavior. And they would benefit from demonstrating empathy (Relax. The train comes every 2 minutes) or appealing to our empathy (Keep dogs off lawn. Kids play here). 

Good idea. Intuitively appealing once Daniel has pointed it out to us. And useful for some purposes. So why does it break down in the stop sign example?

First, we need to sharpen our understanding of emotions and information (or logic). They aren’t separate, as Steven Pinker neatly explained in his best seller, How the Mind Works.  Our emotions contribute to ordering our priorities as we decide what actions to take. In Pinker’s example, when I glimpse a saber-toothed tiger while I’m munching on a blueberry bush, my emotions serve me by prioritizing my desire to flee over my desire to feed (else I don’t pass on my genes to future generations of berry-pickers).

Why doesn’t the sign to Terminal F need an emotional appeal? If I’m looking for Terminal F, the sign doesn’t need to change my emotions to direct my behavior.  It only needs to make clear how I get what I already want. It’s not that emotions don’t matter, its just that I already want to act the way the sign directs.

So my willingness to follow signs emerges as a function of incentives: what do I want to do, and what can you offer (or threaten me with) to get me to do what you want. I want to walk my dog on the grass. So your sign may be more effective if you can conjure a image which gives me an emotional reason to reorder my priorities and keep the lawn pristine for children.

The stop sign example fails in part because the message doesn’t offer me an incentive that has the emotional impact to reorder my priorities. In fact, the messages added to the stop signs (featuring sayings like “whoaa”, “in the naaame of love”, or “right there pilgrim“) aren’t always relevant to the actions I’m taking at all.

It turns out it’s pretty tough to get some people to stop at signs or crosswalks. Here are some startling facts from a study conducted in 2003 that documented failure to stop in school zones:

  • At intersections where pedestrians were crossing, nearly a quarter (24%) of drivers did not come to a complete stop
  • When only child pedestrians were present, nearly a third (32%) of motorists violated the stop signs.

In fact, last Monday cops gave out 101 warnings in only two hours (that’s a rate of almost 1 ticker per minute!) to drivers who failed to stop for pedestrians in a crosswalk at a single intersection in Chicago.

If people in crosswalks won’t get us to stop, what will? Incentives (or costs) – and the bigger, the sooner, and the more certain, the better they work. Redflex traffic Systems, the company that makes so-called red light cameras, the cameras that snap a photo when you run a redlight, reports that the certainty of traffic tickets reduces violations.

California’s red light enforcement program reduced red light running violations by 42 percent. Violations declined about 40 percent also in Fairfax, Virginia, after one year of camera enforcement.

If your company is like most, many internal groups are competing for your employees attention and want to influence their behavior. You’re seeing signs go up everywhere. The experience with stop signs should make you consider just how much you want your employees’ or customers’ actions to change and what you’re offering in return. Signs are important reminders, if people are already convinced the message is worth heeding. Significant changes require significant incentives.

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Filed under: Change ManagementInfluence and PersuasionLeadership

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