Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Psychology and anthropomorphizing to keep the pest problem down

Clearly someone at the SF Department of public works has taken some time to think about how to modify people's behavior in the interests of the public good - even when this is pursuit to keep the pigeon population down.

A notice on the window of an area restaurant delivered the following heartfelt plea from one of its kind: "Please don't feed us. You're killing us with kindness. When you feed us our population explodes. Our nests become overcrowded and our babies get sick. Help keep us healthy. Let us find our own food."

At the bottom of the page, noticeable but whose visibility is over-shadowed by the compelling picture and associated sentiment above it, is the warning "Feeding pigeons is illegal. Violators may be cited and fined."

Hats off to the author of this, a great example of well-thought out and sequenced communication to modify behavior:

1. People are unwilling to change behavior (or attitude) unless they have a reason and understand why. (The TSA posts the question "Why the plastic bag rule for carry-on liquids per passenger? at security screening points. It goes on to answer "To limit the amount of liquids each passenger can board a plane with"....which unsatisfactorily begs another question, but the approach was sound).

2. Delivering the over-population reason from the beak of the pigeon softens the likelihood of rejection and positions it as being in the best interest of the pigeon - which one presumes people feeding care enough about, at least in the (misguided) notion that it helps them).

3. An anthropomorphic tactic only makes readers more likely to be emotionally engaged. It cleverly recognizes the act of feeding as being of good intent while rebutting it (You're killing us with kindness")

4. It addresses the core motivation and diffuses concern over the consequences of discontinuing feeding behavior - that birds will starve instead, without referring to it directly: that merely the population will be kept down is the assuring alternative outcome (though without some kind of perishing somewhere it is hard to imagine how). The additional plea "Keep us healthy" provides further artillery to fully neutralize the motivation for the behavior

5. And as if that all was not enough, the poster ends with a threat, which if the reader has made it all the way through the notice to get to is probably unlikely to evoke a rebellious reaction having understood this is first and foremost in the interests of the birds themselves.

An eloquent and persuasive piece of communication.

It brings to mind a Tom Lehrer parody "Poisoning pigeons in the park". Once presumes it is an offense to either kill or try to kill pigeons already born, though adding clarification on either matter might have seemed to contradict the general spirit of the missive which is to see the reduction of their number.

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