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In the U.K., the public transit agency turned to a marketing campaign built around a famous psychology experiment.

In the Netherlands, reports the NYT,

Dutch drivers are taught that when you are about to get out of the car, you reach for the door handle with your right hand — bringing your arm across your body to the door. This forces a driver to swivel shoulders and head, so that before opening the door you can see if there is a bike coming from behind. Likewise, every Dutch child has to pass a bicycle safety exam at school. The coexistence of different modes of travel is hard-wired into the culture.

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Last Friday, the Nudge blog proposed an explanation for the success of the Copenhagen bicycle butlers in reducing illegally parked bikes. Since this was an improvised idea, not a scientific research design, with just one outcome (people moving their bikes) there are many potential explanations for its success. For the social scientists out there, the bicycle butlers are “overdetermined.” The reasoning originally proposed by the Nudge blog was related to the unexpectedness of the free oil lube and air pump that led cyclists to remember the event and move their bike to specially designated parking areas.

There could be alternative explanations, though. One is about reciprocity. The oil lube and tire air pressure check was a “gift” from the city of Copenhagen, and its recipients, recognizing it as such, felt obliged to respond with a gift of their own. Since the city’s initial gift came with a suggested “thank you gift” (ie. not parking illegally), riders responded. They moved their bikes next time.

That this “gift” was unsolicited is of no consequence. The power of reciprocity in generating compliance is independent of recipient need or desire, as Robert Cialdini points out in Influence. It generates feelings of indebtedness, even though the recipient never asked for such a gift. There are a series of experiments showing this effect, but you can see its influence in your own mailbox. Have you noticed that charities send out free personal return address labels with their solicitations? They generate a higher response from inquires without them – even if most people rarely use the labels!

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Yesterday, we featured a creative nudge in Copenhagen for getting bicyclists to park their bikes in designated spaces. “Bicycle butlers” who oil your chain, pump your tires, and leave you a note kindly asking you to park your bike in the appropriate place next time. The number of illegally parked bikes has dropped by more than two-thirds. Those are impressive results and would-be nudgers should be curious. What’s behind that big drop?

One possible explanation is implied in the bike butler project leader Poul Erik Kinimond’s comment about the solution. Kinimond said the team wanted to tackle the “problem in a way that wouldn’t make people angry because we moved their bicycles.” Call this the kill them with kindness explanation. Persuasion with a velvet glove rather than an iron first.

Maybe. The Nudge blog agrees that kindness is doing the persuasive work here, but only indirectly. Kindness works because it’s unexpected. To be more specific, unexpected in this situation. What situation is that? Parking. When your vehicle (car, bike, etc.) is parked illegally, what happens? You get a ticket, or a boot, or even towed. Punishment is the predicted outcome. Occasionally, like on Christmas Day or New Years, police officers may have written you a “happy holidays” warning instead of a ticket. If that’s ever happened to you, chances are you remember it. Why? Because it was out of the norm, which is exactly what the Copenhagen nudge is.

Exploiting unexpectedness is a powerful strategy for getting people to remember something, a point behavioralists Dan and Chip Heath make in Made to Stick. Think of an unexpected occurrence as akin to a reminder note that continues to pop up in your mind every time you revisit the original situation. What’s unique about the Copenhagen example is the free oil lube and air pump.  There are some similarities to the world of customer service. The Heath brothers point to the example of Nordstrom’s legendary customer service where employees have gone so far as to wrap products a customer bought at another store. The friendly note to park elsewhere next time ties the unexpected oil and air “service gift” to a specific request, putting it back in context of the larger message about appropriate bike parking places. Those two items, the gift and the message, will come together as a package every time that person returns to the metro stop on their bike. They’ll think, “Remember that time I parked my bike illegally…”

The lesson of Copenhagen isn’t that all cities should start oiling the chains and pumping the tires of illegal bike parkers. It’s that more cities should break out of the ticket norm if they want to induce behavioral change.


Problem: Copenhagen cyclists who don’t park their bikes at assigned bike racks and instead park them in areas frequently needed by emergency vehicles.

Solution: “Bicycle butlers.

If you park your bicycle illegally, the City will move it over to the bike racks. Instead of finger-wagging, they will then oil your chain, pump your tires and leave a little note on your bicycle asking to kindly use the bike racks in the future…

When the project started in April they were moving around 150 bicycles a day. Today that number has dropped to between 30 and 50.

“It’s been a bigger success than I had expected. At the beginning I wasn’t keen on rewarding people who parked illegally. The idea was to tackle the problem in a way that wouldn’t make people angry because we moved their bicycles,” sais (Project Leader Poul Erik) Kinimond.

Hat tip: Cheryl Longinotti


1) A disloyalty card for coffee drinkers. Produced by a really over-confident coffee shop owner.

2) Tech coalition presses Obama to give consumers better access to energy usage information.

3) In Norway, there’s a new word for nudging: Dulting.

4) A self-service bike rental company promotes what it can do for your city in calories burned, money saved, pounds lost, carbon cut, and gas saved.

5) Motivating workers is more complicated than just paying them more.

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