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It's hard to get your message across if you have a leaflet in your hand. Dressing as a giant banana gives you a 10 to 15 second window where people listen to you.

It's hard to get your message across if you have a leaflet in your hand. Dressing as a giant banana gives you a 10 to 15 second window where people listen to you.

A fruity research participant in Southwark

I am reading MINDSPACE: Influencing Behaviour Through Public Policy at the moment, which is the Cabinet Office's report on how policymakers might influence individual and collective behaviour for the public good.

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The overall emphasis of the report is not far from 'Nudge'. It's about shifting emphasis from changing more or less rational minds through imparting information, to changing contexts so that more or less socially determined behaviour changes itself.

Mindspace is presented as an acronym designed to capture the main findings from behavioural economics.

Messenger: we are heavily influenced by who communicates information(junior or senior, friend or foe)

Incentives: We are strongly loss averse, and take lots of mental shortcuts

Norms: We are strongly influenced by what others do

Defaults: We tend to 'go with the flow' of pre-set options

Salience: Our attention is drawn to what is novel (hence the giant banana) and what seems relevant to us

Priming: Our acts are influenced by sub-conscious cues

Affect: Our emotional associations powerfully shape our actions

Commitments: We seek to be consistent, and reciprocate

Ego: We act in order to feel good about ourselves.

So what about the giant bananas? One of the case studies to illustrate 'norms' and 'salience' in the report was the London Borough of Southwark's attempt to reduce littering, which is obviously a huge resource drain. Rather than pay people to clean it up, far better to encourage people not do drop it in the first place.

Starting in 2004, Southwark adopted 'Stalking litter', which involved hiring actors in giant litter costumes to 'create a scene' in busy streets throughout the borough, for instance by cheering passers by who put litter in bins. The costumes connect the issue of litter and fixed penalty notices (£75) - reminding people of the serious nature of litter dropping, but doing so by grabbing attention in a constructively frivolous way. The costumes were explicitly designed to represent the most common kinds of litter found in Southwark, including bananas.

The premise is that these similarities are likely to make the litter that citizens encounter more noticeable, and people less likely to drop it. Moreover, if you have a message to get across, it's important to command attention. As one research participant earnestly noted, people are much more likely to listen to you when you are dressed as a giant banana.

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