Shaping behaviour: Part 1

A couple of months ago I posted about the ‘shaping behaviour’ research of RED, part of the UK Design Council. At the time I noted in passing a classification of design approaches for shaping behaviour, mentioned by RED’s Chris Vanstone: “stick*, carrot or speedometer.” It’s worth looking further at this classification and how it relates to the spectrum of control, especially in a technology context:

Yes, it's a stick (well, a branch), next to a PCB


If we define ‘stick’ as ‘punishing the user for attempted deviation from prescribed behaviour’, then many of the architectures of control we’ve examined on this site demonstrate the stick approach. They’re not explicitly ‘technologies of punishment’ in Foucault‘s phrase, but rather a form of structural punishment. The thinking seems to be (for example):

  • If you try to sleep on this bench, you will be uncomfortable (and hence won’t do it again)
  • If you try to copy a DVD, your copy will be degraded and your time and blank DVD wasted (and hence you won’t do it again, or will buy another authorised original)
  • If you try to view our website using a competitor’s browser, your experience will be broken (and hence you’ll switch to our browser)
  • If you try to skateboard here, your board will be damaged and you will be maimed (and hence you won’t do it again)
  • …and so on. There are numerous other examples from software and urban planning, especially.

    The thing is, though, for each of those ‘sticks’, a large percentage of people will not be obedient in the face of the ‘punishment’. They’ll try to find a way round it: a way of achieving their original objective but avoiding the punishment. They’ll search for what others in similar situations have done (e.g. DeCSS in the DVD example) or ask among friends until they find someone with the required expertise or who knows about an alternative. They may even actively destroy the ‘stick’ that punishes them. In some cases they might not even understand that they’re being punished, simply seeing ‘the system’ as beyond their comprehension or stacked against them.

    Equally, there isn’t always a rational strategy behind the ‘stick’ in the first place. The anti-homeless bench doesn’t ‘solve’ the ‘problem of homelessness’. It just punishes those who try to lie down on it without offering an alternative. It’s punishment with no attempt at resolving the problem.

    If a stick does get people to change their behaviour in the intended way, it will be accompanied by resentment, anger and dissatisfaction. It may only be fear of the consequences which prevent actual rebellion. In short: using sticks to change people’s behaviour is not a good idea.

    Carrots: image from image.frame
    Image from image.frame


    A ‘carrot’ means offering users an incentive to change their behaviour. This moves away from actual control to something closer to some aspects of captology – making a persuasive case for behaviour change through demonstrating its benefits rather than punishing those who disobey.

    To some extent, control and incentives may be incompatible. Taking away functionality from users then showing them how they can get it back (usually by paying something) might be a classic combined “carrot and stick” technique, but it’s also bordering on a protection racket, and it doesn’t fool many people.

    However, can control be used in conjunction with genuine incentives to serve the agendas of both sides? Electric lights that turn off automatically if no-one’s in the room take some control away from the user, but also offer benefits to both the user (lower electricity bills) and society as a whole (less energy used). But if they turn off automatically, is there actually any incentive for the user to change his or her behaviour? If we’re always spoon-fed, will we ever learn?

    Perhaps mistake-proofing measures or forcing functions which allow a user to increase his or her productivity or safety, in return for giving up some ‘control’ – which may not be highly valued anyway – fit the definition best. If I’m working in a factory painting coachlines on hand-built bicycles, a steady guide arm that damps my arm vibrations – but only if I also take care as well – takes some control away from me, but also prevents me making mistakes, allowing me to paint more coachlines per hour, more accurately. It also helps my employer.

    But that’s a very weak degree of control. Unless anyone can come up with any counter-examples, I would suggest that providing real incentives for users to change their behaviour is fundamentally a very different approach to the ‘control mindset’ (unless you are trying to trick people by offering false incentives, or by understating what they could lose by changing their behaviour).

    I’ll get round to speedometers in a future post, since this approach is worthy of a deeper treatment.

    *The phrase “carrot and stick” seems now universally to imply “offering incentives with one hand and punishment with the other” (though not necessarily at the same time), rather than the “carrot dangling from a stick, just out of reach” meaning (i.e. “motivating people to perform with incentives which will never be fulfilled”) which I first assumed it to have when I heard the phrase as a kid (I’m not the only one with this issue). In this post, I’ll use “stick” to mean “punishment”.


    1. Matt

      I think the conclusion you reach at the end of your “stick” analysis, “using sticks to change people’s behaviour is not a good idea” is far too simplistic (especially given the high bar you’ve set with this blog). First, although the no-sleeping bench does not solve the problem of homelessness, that is surely not the problem it is trying to solve – it is trying to solve the problem of people sleeping on benches, and solves it fairly effectively. And as for the examples you give of instances in which particular design “sticks” result in rebellion, etc. – well, can’t that just as easily be an argument in favor of better, more careful, more thoughtful sticks? And aren’t there numerous disciplines that might have something to say about this, such as behavioral psychology (the way conditioning involves sticks and carrots), or game theory (e.g., tit for tat as a strategy in an iterated prisoner’s dilemma)?

    2. Mick

      In carrots you don’t provide examples . . . to me from as simple as providing good content will bring users back to your blog (Amazon hooked my wife on the internet) – and range to providing a skate park – kids will do curbs and things less – I’ve seen it in my community.

    3. Isn’t there a fourth type? One type is to punish behavior you wish to abolish. Another is to reward behavior you wish to encourage. A third is to supply (possibly biased) information to influence choices — from advertising (all of it) to bumper stickers that say “if you can read this you are way too close!”. (Those might have unintended consequences — such as someone following more closely to make the text legible, before then backing off. Consider a “speedometer” approach at an all you can eat buffet place in which walking through the vestibule triggers a pressure plate that displays your weight on a large electric sign. It might both reduce the average amount each patron eats (benefiting the place’s bottom line) and shame some people into actually losing weight.)

      But isn’t there a fourth? Some architectures of control are hard to classify into those three groups.

      * Plugs that won’t go in the wrong way. These aren’t exactly a stick — they limit how the thing can be plugged in, but they don’t prevent behavior the user may desire, the way copy protection schemes do. Only mistakes the user would not have wanted. They also don’t reward anything, nor are they strictly informational (a “this way up” arrow without a flange actually preventing wrong-way insertion would be). Or consider the potentially significant impact of the choice of default. For instance, if you order a coke in a restaurant right now, you get a sugary cola (generally either actual coke or pepsi); if you want diet, you need to ask specifically. If this were the other way around, and you got a diet by default unless you specified regular, what would change? I’m guessing a lot of peoples’ weight, mostly decreasing. Some people that just order “a coke” and will be satisfied with either now drink low-calorie soda. The mistakes that get made are now mainly diet instead of regular, instead of the other way around, and to the extent that they don’t send it back but accept the first drink they received this will also have an effect.

      So it looks like there’s at least a fourth category here. You might use “stick” more broadly to apply to anything that prevents a designer-undesired behavior, whether it’s sometimes user-desired or otherwise; then the category includes mistake-proof plugs and sockets and the like; but the choice-of-default is a subtle type of influence that is difficult to classify even then as a stick, carrot, or speedometer…

    4. I agree with the commentary already posted that ‘architectures of control’ would include instances of subliminal manipulation that are neither clearly carrot nor stick.

      Your post, however, had me immediately thinking how much I wish for more true straightforward carrots.
      The first example that comes to mind is for paid text content on the web. The vast majority of sites are either free or by subscription only. Only when I have a fairly good idea of what I’ll be getting (usually from other sources) will I subscribe/pay. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been intrigued enough to search for a sample, and, finding none, gone away emptyhanded. One of the strongest factors in Amazon’s success, imo, is the fact that I can read summaries, samples, and reviews, something I’d not find in many bookstores. Even if those tidbits are often biased or slanted, there’s an involvement in something free as a path toward deciding to purchase. I’ll propose this, therefore, as a ‘carrot’ example.
      (A related ‘stick’ might be public library deadlines and fines.)

      Product examples of pure carrot without hidden agendas are much more subtle and difficult. I think of the gradual popularization of halogen lighting, originally developed for surgery. As and early adopter there, I discovered 20 years ago the advantages of better quality lighting and also of having to change a bulb far less often. If industrial designers had not adopted halogen, we consumers wouldn’t have been able to either.


    5. Dan

      Thanks for the comments, everyone. I must apologise for what was a fairly woolly post – I agree with Matt that it’s not up to the standard I’ve been trying to set! The only excuse is that it was written in a rush and I got de-railed before reaching the conclusion I’d intended.

      My initial intention was to review “stick, carrot and speedometer” approaches all in one post, less long-windedly, and then to note that these, while useful, aren’t sufficient to cover all methods of changing behaviour. As both “None of” and Vera point out, there are other techniques which don’t fit into these categories.

      The “plugs that won’t go in the wrong way” and similar things are mistake-proofing – None of’s “choice of default” examples are a great additional way of looking at this, for which I’m grateful. The “embedded assumptions”, from the regular/Diet Coke default to presumptuousness about file formats (“Attach your resumé as a Word document”) or users’ capabilities in general could in some ways be said to define what is considered “mainstream society/behaviour”, however nebulous that actually is. And of course in some cases it is self-reinforcing, since, for example (as you pointed out in an earlier comment), most computers come pre-loaded with Windows, thus instilling not only a ‘default’, but also a reliance on it.

      With the lack of “carrot” examples, I was trying vainly to find some which were both “carrot” and “control”. While of course I agree with Vera and Mick that there are some great examples where a product or service offers a real incentive to attract and retain users (by helping them achieve what they want to do) I’m not sure that they fit a “control” definition. They change people’s behaviour, and are designed to change behaviour, but they don’t do it by preventing the user doing what he or she wants. Amazon’s information, suggestions and so on are very persuasive, but they don’t stop me going to my local bookstore to buy the books I’ve read about on Amazon.

      Maybe the blog should expand to include non-control persuasion (looking at guerilla and viral marketing, real-life applications of neuro-linguistic programming in commercial or political contexts, and so on). This area fascinates me, but I feel it’s already covered well by people such as Douglas Rushkoff and Martin Howard. However, I’m gradually trying to build up my knowledge of this area too, so I hope in due course it’ll be possible to formulate a more structured overview of persuasion and control (it’s probably a continuum rather than discrete labels – is persuasion not just an attempt at psychological control?)

      Game theory and behavioural psychology, as Matt says, must have a lot more useful and considered things to say about the stick/carrot issue.

      To clarify my admittedly over-simplistic “using sticks to change people’s behaviour is not a good idea” comment: I think, generally, it’s not a very enlightened design approach. Sure, it may solve the immediate problem (just as stopping someone sleeping on a bench solves the immediate problem) but it’s a rather myopic approach for designers to take, ignoring the wider consequences of their work. How many examples are there, really, of a ‘stick’ approach actually solving a bigger problem? Did caning kids at school eliminate misbehaviour? Or did it just teach kids to avoid getting caught? The designer tasked with creating an uncomfortable bench may have been fulfilling the narrow brief specified, but in terms of advancing society or solving social problems, he or she did nothing. And I may be hopelessly romantic, but I’d rather see design evolving down a more ambitious route – e.g. see the work of McDonough and Braungart – than becoming a mere commodity brought in for a specific task (“We need someone to design a bench with a central armrest”). Hey, I’m young and idealistic.

      Thanks again to everyone for the comments; I’ll try to make Part 2 of the post a bit clearer and better argued.

    6. Pingback: Architectures of Control in Design » Teaching customers a lesson

    7. This area does naturally venture more into realms such as marketing, psychology and even philosophy or politics, than specific design elements alone do. Those realms, of course, are unavoidable if you move past identifying physical architectures of control (the immediate reasoning underlying the creation of those properties which force behavior), and expand the analysis to include the motivation and agendas of, and effects on, both parties in general.

      Carrots without sticks don’t, by their nature, prevent one from doing anything or force a particular behavior. Every product (supposedly) offers benefit(s). The carrot alone is merely a free sample, lure, or reward. When the expensive local caterer’s shop serves free gourmet delicacies to the public of an afternoon, they are causing potential clients to interact with their product. Test driving a Jaguar for an entire day won’t stop me from going elsewhere and buying another car, but it could very well prove the hook that makes me decide I ‘can’t live without one’. Future rewards are more complicated (and can force an undesirable relationship). Misleading carrots are usually not specifically about the design of the product either, and also do not truly force any behavior. All this is because, I believe, things in themselves do not motivate humans.

      There are, as you say, many voices discussing consumer behaviour and the manipulation of it in general. Subliminal advertising and marketing (ie. retailers, recently, via smell) have been recognized in business for a long time. That might be related to this blog’s topic, but as performance art is to industrial design. In order to recognize the similarities between audience interactivity with the product of each, one has to broaden the perspective so much as to make it harder to comprehend all at once. Focusing only on design deceipt and trickery, for example, would narrow the focus back down slightly. (Good for ‘sales’ too …villians and scandal will always outperform virtue.)

      A thought: Perhaps, in your consideration of whether to expand your focus beyond the mostly deterrent design properties of objects and places, you might consider delving further into a delineation between the unexpected and the recognized, between the hidden and the obvious? You already have examples of both here.

      Recognized benefits (and carrots) are typically what ‘everyone’ notices and discusses. Hidden or unexpected benefits, from both the creator and user points of view, or consumer invented uses for objects unimagined by the objects’ designers, might be one related side topic. Intended vs unintended behavior in response to physical design actually sounds more like a second sister blog (to me). Holding up and examining the conflicts and contrasts between the agendas and motivations of maker and user is another interesting related topic.

      Might I propose that, in deciding whether to or in which directions to expand your focus here, a central question is do you want to stay primarily within the cause/effect of direct consumer interaction with specific properties of physical products?


    8. “villians and scandal will always outperform virtue”

      This only holds until they are identified and boycotted or outright punished.

      Are any of the following “pure” carrots, or something of the sort?

      * Bakery smells etc. (to the extent that they’re intentional; also, the smell near a KFC)
      Effect: user may spend money.
      * Desirable “free” software with hidden spyware bundled
      Effect: user may inadvertently enable surreptitious monitoring
      * Dirty jobs; any kind of bribery
      Effect: user may do something for money that they otherwise wouldn’t do. Interpreted broadly, could apply to most work salaries.
      * Free porn sites that serve captchas “to keep bots out”, but actually are serving someone else’s captchas, so that a script on the server can post a comment spam to a blog or something similar each time someone visits the porn site. (The script gets a comment posting form from the blog page and a captcha when it gets a visitor, and shows the visitor the captcha. The visitor’s response is entered into the comment posting form along with the spam and submitted. If the submission succeeds, the visitor gets to see some nekkid pics. Yes — there ARE web sites out there doing this.)
      Effect: users unwittingly lend their brains to a spambot so that it can solve hard-AI problems and “pass”.

    9. Eric Boesch

      Apologies for being off-topic, but I thought I’d mention an apparent bit of control that caught me off guard yesterday. There’s a pedestrian bridge from the Rockville, Maryland subway station to the other side of the 6-lane boulevard it abuts — which I thought was a nice touch until I got to the other side and found no stairs back down! I had to walk another 100 yards on an elevated path past a shopping and business center, and then back to the road again. I saw no spatial constraints to explain this — all I could think of was that the subway station developer was also involved in the development on the other side, and was not averse to granting himself a captive audience.

    10. considerphi

      Trying to think of a carrot too, I realize we probably don’t notice carrots because they don’t annoy or restrict us…

      So I tried to think of things I like using, like my DVR. It occurred to me that the companies selling them, could have been overly restrictive about how long you could keep a show, and force deleted the show after a week or something. This would have been irritating and stressful, and people would have no doubt found a way to keep the show by recording it onto a pc anyway. But by making it easy to keep the show on the box for as long as you want it, they encourage you to *leave* the show on the box. At least with most customers, this means the show never ends up as a distributable, networked, digital file (and the box maker doesn’t get sued, not for that, anyway).

      Maybe they never thought about it, but it works anyway.

    11. Michael

      I like the carrot and stick idea as the use of one is often enough to distract the eye from the other!
      Granted, the ‘stick’ will always be complained about, its forcefull by its simple use. The carrot should never actually stand out, it shouldnt even be noticed. When you add the 2 together the carrot is a very powerfull tool. Once the stick has been applied for so long, the carrot can be introdused with no ill effects. Even better if the same company introduces both. Diet cola – Has always stuggled with the male proportion as its seen as a week or diet drink. Now ‘zero’ has been introduced marketed as a ‘choice’ and not a forced healthy living, it has increased cokes ‘diet’ male market. the carrot is the stealth tool used by the holder of the stick, beware!

    12. Pingback: WebWord » Blog Archive » Architectures of Control in Design

    13. Pingback: Shaping behaviour: Part 2 at fulminate // Architectures of Control

    14. Pingback: Packet switching at fulminate // Architectures of Control

    15. Pingback: r-echos » Blog Archive » Packet switching

    Comments are closed.