Flushing our bad habits down the drain

Interesting example of behavioral economics at work – or not - and why it is so hard to break habits.

A University of Missouri professor, Laura McCann, studied the use of newly-installed dual-flush toilets at city hall in Columbia. The concept is that you are supposed to flip the lever up to flush urine (which requires less water) and push it down to flush feces (which requires more water.)  The toilets feature a set of wordy instructions to “clarify” this.

The study revealed that hardly anyone uses the toilets correctly.  Specifically, most people just push down all the time, resulting in a huge waste of water.

The obvious solution – which apparently isn’t so obvious to designers – is to reverse the directions and make the “down” push the low-flow option.   As McCann says, “It was so stupid. I can’t believe they designed it that way.”  But they did. 

If you’ve read Nudge by Thaler and Sunstein this will resonate.  Changing habits is hard.  As McCann points out, if you had a toilet like this on your home, you probably would figure it out, but most people don’t use the toilets at city hall all that often, so they default to the behavior they know.  Things should be designed in a way that the smart choice is the easy choice, not the one you have to think about.