Behavioural Economics

What we can learn from American public toilets

Let’s start with terminology, given that the readership for this post may not be British, as the writer is. This post is about public toilets. Loos. Lavvies. Public WCs (Water Closets). Public Conveniences. Restrooms. I clarify this, just in case ‘toilets’ could get confused with ‘Eau de Cologne’, and that ‘Public’ means ‘free for anyone to use’ as opposed to say, a public school.

Now, why, oh why, is the topic of public toilets in any way a viable, informative and interesting topic for a business blog, for Linked In?

Well, let me take you back. During my University years, I worked in a motorway (Interstate) service station during my holidays (vacations). Mainly, I worked in the café, clearing tables, serving cups of tea, griddling sausages, or behind the scenes operating the huge conveyor belt dishwasher, or occasionally prepping food. What I didn’t have to do, fortunately, was have anything to do with the toilets. Goodness knows, the company, Road Chef, spent a lot of time, effort and money looking after those toilets. There was a lovely lady called Gwen who’s job it was to watch over them. I’d like to say as a result of this that they were spotless. But they weren’t. In fact, they were terrible, awful, godforsaken, Damnable Cesspits. It was deeply depressing, to put yourself in the shoes of people who thought it was perfectly OK to:

  • drill holes in the cubicles so they could spy on you
  • graffiti the walls with lewd advertisements, like a XXX Classified Ads board
  • smear excrement over the seats (I kid you not)
  • urinate up the walls (again, I kid you not)
  • and leave the damn seat lid up (I know, I know)

I’m sure there must be some deep psychological study of why this is the case; why people, many of whom must be scrupulously clean and polite in their own space, are so happy and willing to vandalise and brutalise a public space – and worse, leave it for Gwen to clean up. But that’s not the topic for here.

Let’s just say that as a result of this experience, I keep an eye out on the quality of the toilets: and I’ve been, over many years, watching the responses to this behaviour, which is far from isolated – in fact, sad to say it is commonplace. In high traffic areas, the response has been attendants and barriers, paying for the privilege, keeping an eye out for miscreants (railway stations are a good example). Most places however can’t go this far. Here, more typically, one can expect to see sheet steel bolted to the inside of the cubicle. It doesn’t stop the vandalism, but it makes it more difficult to drill through and a bit noisier too. Anti-graffiti paints are also used. Many establishments also reduce the number of cubicles – fewer spaces, longer queues, easier to control. And of course, there are the plethora of tick lists reminding users that ‘this toilet is regularly cleaned’ or ‘this toilet was last checked at 10.05am’. In all, it’s a terrible waste of time and energy just to try and control bad and unhygienic behaviour.

A few weeks ago I was in the U.S. And yet again, in my international toilet ponderings, I was reminded of something, which, to a Brit at least has always seemed odd. U.S. toilets have two strange features. Firstly, they have ruddy great gaps around the doors (see picture – look, it could have been worse). And secondly, the cubicle walls start a foot off the ground. Handy for inspecting the shoes and socks of your neighbour should you wish (knitwear alert chaps). And there’s no graffiti.

Now, that’s a sweeping statement. So let me qualify it slightly. In every public restroom that I have visited in the U.S. there has rarely been any graffiti and in my recent 16 day visit, there was none.

What we have here is, unwittingly or not, a great example of behavioural science in action.

Crow looBecause the features of the cubicles – large gaps in effect – have a curious impact on how we behave in this public space. Think about it: a fully enclosed space is as private as being at home, but without the consequences. If you want to give in to your darkest perversions, you can and someone else will wield the mop.   But in the ‘gappy’ U.S. toilets, another voice is introduced into your mental dialogue.   The gaps around the door are about inch, 0.8cm wide*. In truth, you can’t be seen – but you can see people passing outside; you can detect and support that someone is waiting. It is no longer a private space even though you can’t (really) be seen.

And floor gaps are interesting too – because these are big. Should you want to chat face to face to your neighbour, you could kneel down and pop your head underneath**. You could certainly pass, say, a bag underneath. But here’s the thing. From the outside, you can see that someone’s in there. And they can see that you’re outside. And so, your mental dialogue changes again: ‘what will they think I’m doing unless my feet are facing forward and my trousers are down?’***

Feeling uncomfortable? That’s what’s going on though. These are, to use the behavioural terminology, nudges that persuade us to think – and crucially act – differently.

*I would like to point out that I haven’t measured this. That would be concerning.

** No, I haven’t before you ask, and that’s the truth.

***Goodness, there’s a quote that could be taken out of context.

Slide1David Preston is founder of The Crow Flies, a research, strategy and innovation company that helps brands find a direct route to long lasting success.; +44 (0) 1283 246260;; @crowflieshigh.

© The Crow Flies, 2015

The allure of ‘new-news’


To work in a consumer product business is to be immersed in an environment of ‘new’.

I was reminded of this as I recently walked through the aisles of my local Co-operative and was assailed by a New Year barrage of newness. Brand owners, retailers, category builders – all talk about the need for ‘new news’, which let’s face it, is a bit odd because surely that’s just ‘news’. But no, it has to be a calendar packed to the gunnels with ‘new news’. ‘New news’ to grow the category; ‘new news’ to show the retailer our new agenda; ‘new news’ to stay ahead of our competitors, or if you’re a retailer, ‘new news’ to show our customers we’re the place to shop.

And before too long, a self-powering work machine is created. The brand has to stay ahead of its competitors. New news response: re-position. The category has to attract new consumers. New news response: re-segment the market. The brand needs to stand out from the shelf more powerfully. New news response: (another) new redesign.

Working in these environments is beguiling too. Employees are happy because the brand is doing stuff. Customers are happy because the brand is doing stuff. The communications team are happy because they can tell the City / Street that they’re doing stuff.

But it begs the question about whether the stuff is needed or effective.

IMG_0914The issue is the deeply powerful response that ‘newness’ provokes in us. We feel it every day when we buy things: the tingle of anticipation; the nervous excitement in selection and payment; the sugar rush of first love when the product is set up perhaps or first used. Retailers are masters at this: clever merchandising nudges shoppers to interesting displays. Point of sale delivers the coup de grâce: the little flash of red; the contrast between colours; the positioning of a wobbler or edge ticket in eye line. Brands use it too on their promotional packaging: the corner flag; the red flash and of course, the word itself: ‘New’. The synapses in the brain are flaring like a New Year’s Eve fireworks display. It can be exciting; inspiring; addictive.

And dangerous… especially for brand custodians.

Whilst we may fool ourselves into thinking we’re rationale, we know of course that most of the time the decisions we make are instinctive and intuitive – they have to be otherwise we simply couldn’t function. The semiotics of ‘new’ are what make it effective in store: everything honed and tuned to make your decision easier; risk free; stirring. Alas, the desire for brand ‘new news’ can strike at all levels, not just for activation – where it can be positive – but at the strategic level – where it can cause real mischief. Here, any excuse for re positioning is grabbed like a child ripping into the Christmas selection boxes. Any excuse for blaming the lack of traction on ‘the wrong consumer’ is seized upon as the requirement for a new segmentation. It’s persuasive for marketeers to be able to deploy these arguments to convince their stakeholders. But when the results don’t emerge little time is spent on enquiring why, because ever facing forward, never stopping to learn, the next batch of ‘new news’ is being cooked.

The past doesn’t lie.

Behavioural science is now shedding a fascinating light on how strongly we as humans ‘anchor’ ourselves to ideas, concepts, brands, people….. just about anything. How we feel and think about most things is shaped by the precious initial interactions. Whether mostly positive or mostly negative, these anchors dig in deep. For you to change the mind of potential consumers of your brands, you can’t just persuade them – they need to be prepared to come. Or conversely, the ragtag mental bag of words, emotions, symbols, experiences, smells that your consumers hold about your brand could be your biggest strength. Brain theorists talk of ‘neural networks’; perhaps a more useful analogy is a map. Like a topographical map, the marks of the past haven’t been swept away, the traces are there to see. The undulations in the mental landscape, the ‘rivers’ of thought, the ‘mountains’ of memory, the old green ways made by your category or brand are still there to see, if you look in the right way and ask the right questions. And typically, when they are rediscovered they allow you to unlock an outpouring of positive emotion – nostalgia perhaps, but excitement, hope and sense of discovery: powerful emotional levers for your brand. Only looking forwards, ignoring this mental mapscape could be an opportunity lost.

In the clamour for the next thing, understanding these associative ‘maps’ that link the successful elements of the category or brand’s past to the opportunities of tomorrow is the new news for marketeers. Or rather, that should be ‘new olds’.

David Preston is founder of The Crow Flies, a research, strategy and innovation company that discovers and maps the direct route to success for categories and brands.

© The Crow Flies, 2014