Social Norms in Action

From a reader named Stephane:

Very recently I drove through a couple of small villages in the northwestern part of Belgium (near the border with France). A couple of road signs caught my attention. When you reach a village there’s a sign (in Dutch) saying “here, X percent of the drivers stay within the speed limit.” Then when you reach the next village there’s the same sign except that the percentage is different. Usually it’s around 90% (87% in one village, 91% in another, etc.).

I don’t know how they collect the data or even if the numbers are real. I also wish I knew the trends, how often they change the signs, how many villages participate in this safety initiative, etc. Then I wondered: where does this idea come from? Have you heard of anything like this before? If yes, is this effective to slow cars down?

Why yes, I have heard of such a thing. In a podcast called “Riding the Herd Mentality,” we discussed the use of “social norms” to bend behavior to one’s liking. One interesting example I’ve seen recently while visiting in Chicago: big signs over the highway that tell you how many people have been killed in motor-vehicle accidents so far this year.

Have any other examples worth sharing?

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  1. Madelaine says:

    “Most KU students have 0-5 drinks when they party”.

    Wasn’t too sure that one helped much.

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  2. jane says:

    Many restaurants list suggested tip amounts on the receipt:
    15% = XX
    20% = YY
    25% = ZZ
    This presentation sets 20% as an average/expected tip, and one should not even dare to consider 14%.

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  3. Ryosuke says:

    In Japan, there are loads of small police stations, manned by one or two officers. As far as I can tell, every such small station carries a sign showing how many deaths and injuries have been reported/recorded. People usually do not know the area the statistics are supposed to cover or since when the date has been collected – presumably the area covered is the jurisdiction of the police head quarters the particular station belongs to and the number is year-to-date. Anyhow, you can easily get used to the sight of those numbers and changes in numbers stop meaning anything pretty soon. I seriously doubt it deters anything but they keep doing it.

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  4. Derek P says:

    Next sign: There is a 7% likelihood that the previous sign will have an effect on your driving.

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  5. Noshtradamus says:

    Yeah, we have billboards like this on every road and highway of India, but they don’t work… Why? Because no one believes advertising anymore!

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  6. John says:

    At Australia’s greatest horse race day, the Melbourne Cup, the public set up picnic spots on large grass lawns to enjoy the action. However, as they crowd in, this leaves little room for people to move about, to and from exits, etc. So the ground staff simply painted paths – 2 white lines – on the grass. There are no signs saying keep off, don’t set up here. People register it as a path subconsciously – even thought it’s still grass – and don’t sit there.

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