I recently listened to an interesting Freakonomics podcast about whether signs are effective, get ignored, or actually exacerbate the problem they seek to solve. Angela Duckworth, Stephen Dubner’s co-host on this podcast, is basically one of my favorite humans.

Years ago, traveling in Beijing, I chanced upon a sign at the now empty Olympic stadium that said (in English) “The tender grass, how hardhearted to trample them.” This specific sign didn’t make me want to walk on the grass, although the translation did make me laugh. Identifying walking on the grass as a moral failing, being hard-hearted towards the living organism that is the grass, was a novel approach. Sometimes signs can make us laugh and change our perspective. Usually if I see a sign that says “don’t walk on the grass,” I only alter my behavior in relation to what other people are doing. If there are clearly “cow trails” where humans have cut across the grass, I do too. If there are other people actually walking on the grass next to the sign, well, so do I.

Where I live there are often humorous signs on freeway to remind drivers in a fresh way not to do something or to do something. A quick search yielded a few of these that I found amusing and somewhat compelling:

  • Drive like the person your dog thinks you are.
  • Changing lanes? Use yah blinkah.
  • Visiting in-laws? Slow down. Get there late.
  • OMG. Are you texting? I can’t even.
  • Buckle up. #yolo

There were a few others I found less compelling, or even off-putting:

  • Camp in the mountains, not the left lane. (This one just makes me pissed off at those drivers who camp out in the left lane, more likely to aggressively pass them on their right).
  • Hello from the other side. Buckle up and stay alive. (The song is fine, but this one feels dark–it makes me think of those terrible driver ed films from high school).
  • Speeding leads to the dark side. (Oh, so now I’m going to die AND go to hell? Come on, man.)

The podcast talked about the road signs that read your current speed in real time, post it, and compare it to the speed limit. There was some evidence that these messages did reduce car accidents and caused people to slow down, perhaps because they alerted people who weren’t aware how fast they were driving to pay attention. But a similiar campaign, one showing the number of recent fatalities in a stretch of road as a way to get drivers to pay more attention actually found that fatalities increased when the campaign was running. Angela Duckworth and Stephen Dubner share some reasons that the signs may have had a negative impact:

  • All drivers saw the messages, and they didn’t differentiate between speeders and non-speeders, just alive and dead.
  • The extreme negativity of the message (you could be dead) reminded people of sadness in their own lives, things beyond their control, loved ones who died, etc.
  • There’s a fine line between being cautious (good) and tensing up (bad).
  • The sign doesn’t really tell you what behavior to change, just reminds you that driving is dangerous.

They then went to an example that I had direct personal experience with: the petrified forest. If you visit the petrified forest, there are signs that say “Because so many people are stealing wood at the rate of nearly a ton a month, this is undermining the integrity of the forest.” A researcher overheard one park visitor say to her companion “Oh, we’d better hurry and get ours then, before it all disappears!” They tested the theory that these signs caused people to steal more petrified wood by placing pieces of the petrified wood along the path near the signs and counting them up. The signs tripled the rate of theft. Yikes.

In the book Nudge (which I started last year, and I swear I’m going to finish it!) the author shared the story of an airport with messy men’s bathrooms trying to keep them cleaner by putting the image of a small fly in the bottom of the urinal to help men improve their aim by making a game of it. (No actual flies were harmed in this experiment). Dubner and Duckworth discussed the things we think about on a deeper level when we see a sign:

  • Who wrote it? What authority figure is behind that sign, posting it or asking it to be posted?
  • Who benefits from the changed behavior the sign is promoting? Is it me or someone else?
  • Is the sign dictatorial or collaborative?
  • Does the sign make you feel insulted or is it complimentary?

One reason humorous signs work for some people is that they feel collegial, and even if the message is insulting, it’s done in a way that also brings the reader inside the joke. Humor that’s lighthearted is even more effective than humor that’s scary and insulting. The take has to be fresh, not cliche.

The podcast ended by discussing a problem with doctors not washing their hands in a hospital. They tried signs reminding doctors to wash their hands, swabbing their hands for germs and posting those petri dishes of germs on all screen savers, and having a posse of hospital workers give out $10 gift cards for good hand-washing. Some of these approaches worked, some didn’t, some worked for a while, but not over the long term. They then discussed better ways to phrase signs (“Your mom would be so proud of your excellent hand-washing!”). Duckworth, who is a psychologist, suggested that a Beyonce song play after the 20 seconds of hand washing was complete to make it a fun game, but still with a social component to it (you don’t want someone to see you leaving the bathroom without Beyonce playing).

Apparently the petri dish screen savers were the most effective approach, perhaps because, like hips, petri dishes don’t lie. They resulted in nearly 100 percent compliance. The hospital also outlawed neckties, lanyards, necklaces and most jewelry as all of these were also complicit in trapping and transferring germs from patient to patient. Those little changes added up to better results.

Which brings me to the idea of rules and norms at Church. As a high demand religion, we have a lot of rules (fewer since General Conference and Uchtdorf’s re-written FSOY guide, praise be). I’ve occasionally wondered about the efficacy of some of these rules because in prohibiting something, they also draw attention to that thing they are outlawing. We used to always joke as parents that if you say “Don’t make a mess,” all the kids hear is “Make a mess.” If you say “Don’t stay out too late,” they hear “Stay out too late.”

Consider the mixed message many YW have heard: “Modest is hottest.” On the one hand, it rhymes and sounds catchy. It also makes it sound like the benefit (namely, hotness) is for the one adding layers and covering up. The problem is that our mind (according to Duckworth) will be subconsciously suspicious about the authority figures behind the message. Why do they want me to do this? Is it really for my benefit, or for theirs? This low-level suspicion doesn’t motivate compliance and can actually undermine the message. It also doesn’t feel collaborative. The Church that also tells you premarital sex is bad is also telling you how to be sexy? Yeah, that sounds legit.

This mixed message reminds me of a fake ad my classmates and I made in the 1980s as a swipe at Nancy Reagan’s Just Say No campaign. In our version, a nervous teen walks down a dark alley while other kids try to convince him to study with sinister whispered messages that echo: “You’ll get good grades,” “You’ll be popular,” “Your parents will be proud.” At the end of the alley the kid yells “No!!” and runs away. While it was just a funny project for school (yes, we got an A–our English teacher was also subversive), we had inadvertently hit on what didn’t work about the campaign: the authority figure was telling kids how to be cool. Kids knew Nancy Reagan wasn’t cool.

There was an episode of Abbott Elementary in which the kids were discovered to be doing a secret TikTok challenge called “desking” behind the teachers’ backs, jumping from desk to desk while being filmed. The faculty tried several methods to get the kids to stop, but finally succeeded when two of the teachers completed the desking challenge, posting their video to TikTok, declaring themselves the desking champions of the school. Suddenly the kids realized that desking was no longer cool. Understanding that we are not the arbiter of what’s cool can be the first step in realizing how our endorsement undermines our messages.

Messages aren’t the same as coercion, of course. When you compel someone to obey, through bribes or penalties, you don’t really change commitment to the changed behavior. As Bishop Bill pointed out, you are just motivating them to tell you what you want to hear, to juke the stats. Jesus didn’t rely on coercion. He shared thought-provoking stories that stuck with listeners for a while until their viewpoint changed, and that wisdom has stuck with disciples for two thousand years. Organizations typically aren’t as good at it as that.

There’s recently been a rise in churches (particularly some high demand Evangelicals) requiring congregants to download “accountability” apps that reveal their online activity to their pastor who then addresses anything flagged by the software as problematic. Thankfully we haven’t gone that far (the Facebook policing and SMSC are already going way too far!). Of course, it will come as no surprise that these apps flag all sorts of normal things as problematic, and also, an online search, even about something that might be deemed sinful behavior, isn’t the same thing as committing a sin. Obviously, researching and writing a school essay about genocide isn’t the same thing as committing genocide.

  • What behavior-changing messages from church have been effective? What made them work?
  • Can you think of behavior-changing messages at church that have been ineffective? Why?
  • If you were in charge, what messages would you suggest to improve behaviors? What behaviors would you like to see changed?
  • Do you think the Church would track online behaviors of members if possible or would they recoil from such domineering oversight?