The Persuasive Power of Fun

This post is a version of a column I wrote for our local neighborhood paper the Fishtown Star. I thought I would share it with the blog because all you readers out there always seem able to spin my half baked thoughts and ideas into something more interesting and useful. Spin away.

The majority of people are reluctant to do anything inconvenient even if that thing benefits them in some significant and immediate way. There are, let’s face it, relatively few of us jumping on the treadmill every morning. Sure, we may climb aboard on occasion, but typically most of our mornings are spent slapping the snooze button until we are only 10 to 15 minutes late for work. And, exercise is something with recognizable short term benefits. Treadmill use could make us healthier, more attractive and less likely to get winded walking from the couch to the fridge. So, what about those actions with less tangible results? What about those things that are important for others or for these “future generations” we hear so much about? If most of us can’t be bothered to play the hamster for 15 minutes for the benefit of our own bodies, what are the chances we will get involved in anything that doesn’t immediately reduce our chances of serious illness or increase our chances of a date?

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The most inconvenient things that the majority of us do in the day have the most immediate and tangible rewards. When we work, we get a paycheck. When we take care of our children, they become less likely to take up recreational armed robbery or burn the house down. When we go shopping, we get to eat. I’m sure you could continue this list on and on until you begin to see the root of the problem. Generally, we have so many inconvenient things to do that adding more without immediate recognizable results is asking quite a bit. We would much rather fill those few free moments we have with fun. We would rather play a game, sip a beer or watch Two and a Half Men (though I remain confused as to how the latter is fun).

So, how do we get ourselves and those around us to do those necessary, but inconvenient things that will contribute to maintaining the livability of our planet? How do we convince people to reduce their energy usage, to walk instead of drive, to recycle, to compost, to care about storm water, to buy local food? How do we break easy habits like throwing trash into storm drains (Philly, I’m looking at you) or taking extra long showers?

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Why not appeal to our desire for fun? Sure, we could use the old standbys of rewards and punishment, shame and making things easier, but wouldn’t fun be . . . well, more fun? We could, in theory, make these inconvenient things we have to do into fun things we get to do. This could result in more buy-in even among those of us too short sighted to care about the long term benefits of our actions.

Some good examples of this can be found at The Fun Theory where they believe that fun is the best way to get people to change their behavior. In one instance they turned the stairway next to an escalator into a piano, resulting in a 60% increase in stair usage. They also rigged a garbage can to make an amusing sound when used, resulting in a lower littering rate. But how might these ideas be used to accomplish local sustainability goals? How can we make the small mundane things we want people to do fun?

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I have seen people in my neighborhood who are incredibly skilled at throwing trash into the storm drains from considerable distances. Could this same skill, and the enjoyment derived from it be directed at a less destructive receptacle? Perhaps a garbage bin with a variety of holes of varying size and difficulty. Maybe a receptacle that rewarded a shot with sound or light.

I have also noted that the tendency to save energy is higher when the information is public. What if there was a game or competition of some sort that encouraged people to share that information. This could be made even easier with the new online energy monitoring options that are beginning to come out. We could hold block vs block competitions . . . tournaments of savings.

These aren’t great ideas or even new ones, but I think if we include the concept of fun in our discussions on how to motivate people toward participation we will set ourselves up for more success. Until sustainable activities are habit, it is going to take a lot of work to convince people to get involved. Some of that work could be made easier by introducing elements of fun into the equation.

So what ideas do you have to make the inconvenient fun? How can we use games to engage more people in solutions? Or, is it better to stick with punishments and rewards?

Do that fun commenting thing.