Who out there likes to have fun? Probably the majority of us would enthusiastically raise our hands to this question. And the couple of you who didn’t, well, you’re totally not invited to my next party. Fun is one of those no-brainer things. Fun is always welcome. I adore fun and invite it over for coffee cake at every opportunity, but I’d never really thought about fun as a behavior modification tool until I followed the link in a tweet recently posted by a brand new coworker (welcome to Promega, Jason!):
Stairs? Fun? I take the stairs all the time, but wouldn’t characterize them as fun. More like “good for me” or “penance for those chips I ate last night.” But I hit the link and watched the video and was almost pouting by the end because those stairs? Those stairs in the Odenplan subway station in Stockholm? I want to go climb those stairs RIGHT NOW. Hold me back, I may start shopping for a plane ticket.
The “piano stairs” are part of The Fun Theory, an initiative sponsored by Volkswagen. The idea is that adding an element of fun to otherwise mundane or even unpleasant tasks is one of the easiest ways to effect positive change. The video seems to illustrate that they’re on to something here. Compared with early footage of the depressingly empty staircase and packed escalator, after the piano stairs are installed, you see people not only choosing to take the stairs, but lingering there, even playing a bit. They’re smiling, they’re…having FUN.
As it turns out, 66 percent more people than normal chose to take the stairs over the escalator during the observation period. That’s a respectable bump. Follow-up videos on litter control using The World’s Deepest Bin and glass recycling as entertainment with the Bottle Bank Arcade Machine show more proof that there’s something to this. People, we are putty in fun’s hands.
So, I find this initiative fascinating. Positive psychology meets personal responsibility meets a dollop of mirth. With all our daily stressors and fears and things that generally make us just a wee bit crabby and cynical, I’m a stone-cold sucker for anything that lets people indulge their playful and curious sides and surrender to whimsy.
The potential positive environmental, health and societal impacts surrounding this idea are fairly compelling, too. How might the spread of H1N1 be affected if everyone washed their hands more often because it was fun? Would you shut off the faucet while brushing your teeth if a real-time display showed how many seconds of water usage you’d had this month compared to last month and the goal was to beat your all-time low score? What if your light switches started loudly heckling you if you left them on and left the room for 10 minutes? Okay, that one might get old, but still…you’d shut it off, wouldn’t you?
Given how viral these videos have gone, it appears I’m not the only one slightly enchanted. There’s even a contest, the Fun Theory Award, for people to submit their own ideas. There are a few good ones already. Can you come up with any? I’m sitting here racking my brain trying to think of a way to make doing my taxes or waiting in an airport security line experiences worth awaiting with gleeful anticipation. It’s starting to hurt, so I’m going to stop, but there must be a way.
Playing devil’s advocate, I do have to wonder about the effectiveness of these experiments toward true long-term behavior modification. A critical component of fun is novelty. Piano stairs are delightful the first two or three (or, if you’re like me, probably more like 35) times you take them, but is that enough to start reprogramming those neural pathways and engender the formation of a habit? Maybe, maybe not. But, other than the occasional groin pull suffered by someone trying to execute a perfect fifth on those piano stairs, I honestly can’t see a downside.