So long, and thanks for all the rubbish

Kiitos . Tack . Thank you

It cost nothing to put this (trilingual) thank-you message on this litter bin at Helsinki Airport. But does this kind of message – a very simple injunctive norm – have more effect on user behaviour than the absence of a message? To what extent does it make you more likely to use the bin? To what extent is a message of appreciation affective?

See also [both PDFs] ‘Crafting Normative Messages to Protect the Environment’, an extremely interesting paper by Robert Cialdini, and ‘Persuasive Trash Cans’ [EDIT: Thanks to Ian Mason for the non-paywall link] by Eindhoven’s Yvonne de Kort, Teddy McCalley and Cees Midden, which reviews this field and then compares the effectiveness of different kinds of messages. This quote is worth noting:

The focus theory of normative conduct… posits that norms affect human behavior systematically and significantly but only in situations where the norm is salient (focal) for the individual. In other words, this theory suggests that individuals may well have internalized an antilittering norm, but without activation through attention-focus procedures, it will not necessarily guide behavior in a prosocial direction.


  1. Doesn’t work on me.

    Thanks is something performed in person by a human being, not a bin. I can’t conceive of thanks being given in advance to all and sundry by a design team who were trying to figure out how to make their bins more appealing. I think putting ‘litter’ or something like that would be better (in case people thought they were napkin dispensers, umbrella stands, or security cameras).

    I can’t also conceive of a computerised railway platform announcer expressing sorrow for the lateness of trains.

    Nor can I have much respect for signage at roads leading into a village pleading for my careful driving and thanking me for it upon my exit. It’s the pleading and the thanks that are infeasible. The signs could simply remind less experienced drivers of a need for greater caution.

    Signs provide information. They cannot have a conversation nor communicate emotion. They may record the fact that the authors of the signs aspired to the supernatural ability to have empathy with readers of the signs, but they don’t achieve that empathy.

    Intrinsically unempathetic signs can’t be human, but humans can be unempathetic, as in the rote ‘have a nice day’.

  2. I’ll just add that my answerphone attempts to thank the caller ‘for leaving a message’ by saying “Thank you for calling” in a pleasant female voice AFTER THE CALLER HAS HUNG UP. WTF?

    ‘Thanks’ may cost nothing to add, but this is the problem. If it costs nothing it has no value. Indeed it removes value. It lessens the reader’s opinion of the manufacturer/designer and consequently reduces the affect of the product upon them.

    It’s a bit like passing “Congratulations on your new baby” cards round the office for all to sign. Eh? Why on earth am I (who don’t even have a relationship with the couple) going to congratulate someone on an achievement that is almost as easy as eating some delicious food and a few hours later having a crap? Both acts that humans have had a natural facility with since mammal became homo.

    Thanks out of convention, or “Come on, sign their card for god’s sake, it doesn’t cost you anything”, lessens the value of the thanks or sentiment when it is actually valid and can actually be communicated from person to person. Just as “We can’t afford a human litter collector who will thank you for helping him out, so instead we’ll just put this bin here and write the words ‘Thank you’ to make you feel good – because we know you’re subliminally vulnerable like that – and we can condition you to repeat the act”.

  3. McGazz

    I suppose it’s a bit like those signs that say “Thank you for not smoking”.

    I couldn’t help giggling when I saw one of the authors of the paper on Persuasive Trash Cans was called Midden.

  4. Kaleberg

    In the mid-60s Parisian trash cans had SVP on them. I figured that meant Sanitation V-something Paris. I hadn’t gone to high school yet so I didn’t even have high school French. Turns out it meant si vous plais, please. Parisian streets were cleaner back then probably because there wasn’t very much packaging. When you bought a loaf of bread, you got a loaf of bread, not a loaf and a wrapper and a bag.

  5. Dan

    I suppose the balance between the obviously-couldn’t-really-care-less-false-sincerity of the stilted, recorded “We… are… sorry… for… the… delay… to… this… service”-type messages, and the simple kind of “Thank you” on the rubbish bins is a fairly subjective one. I get frustrated by the insincerity of corporate/Highways Agency/rail operator ‘apologies’ but equally there is (to me at least) something cheerfully affirmative about something as simple as the “SVP” message Kaleberg mentions.

    That’s not to say it’s entirely artless – as the research indicates, the messages can be part of a behaviour-influencing strategy – but equally, there must be cases where, genuinely, a sign thanking people for doing(/not doing) something can convey some emotion on the part of the person/organisation behind the sign. If I understood more about semiotics, I’d probably be able to word all this more precisely.

    As McGazz mentions, the “Thank you for not smoking” (along with the “Thank you for driving carefully through our village” ones) are rather presumptuous and somehow fawning in their earnestness.

    p.s. Thanks Ian for finding the prepress version of the paper; I’ve updated the link.

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