I tried an experiment at an end-of-season BBQ for my son’s hockey team. I placed two rubbish cans next to each other. One had no cover, so people could throw anything into it. The other had a cover with a six-inch round hole—the perfect size to drop cans and bottles. There were no oral or written requests to segregate and recycle the trash.
The attendees were twenty teenage boys and their parents. And while their parents are good folks, enforcing segregation of trash was not a high priority. I’ve been on road trips with the boys, so I know from first-hand experience that neatness and cleanliness are not team values, to put it mildly.
Backing up for a second, we’ve had many parties at our house before, and my system back then was an open trash can and the blue plastic recycling tub. I’m not sure whether it was the kids or the parents in parties past, but few people segregated their trash. I would have to go through the cans to find the recyclables.
I was amazed by the results of my experiment: the trash can with the round hole was filled with bottles and cans. There wasn’t anything other than bottles and cans in it. This is logical—it would be an act of deviance to roll up a paper plate, for example, to shove into the hole. The round hole was the perfect trigger for what people should do.
The trash can without the cover was the acid test. Would people make the effort to segregate the trash or take the easy way out? I went through this can to count, and there were a mere five beer bottles in the whole thing. In other words, five parents were either callous or clueless (the boys were not drinking beer!). And these bottles were at the very bottom—perhaps before peer pressure kicked in.
Maybe I’m nuts, but this illustrates how you can change behavior if you create paths or flows of the smoothest kind. Are there ways your small business can influence the behavior of your customers? Taken to the extreme, this can result in trickery and manipulation where people do something contrary to their best interests. But if your motives are pure, and people benefit from your actions, it’s not so hard to influence behavior.