The Fun Theory

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!):

@konen's tweet about "fun stairs"

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.

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Caroline Sober

Caroline is a senior software developer at Promega. She’s not a scientist, so if you hear her talking about DNA purification or pipetting or current issues in bioprivacy, she’s totally faking it and you should tell her to hush. She is, however, passionate about building useful software, the interactions between people and technology in general, and how social media is changing the conversation between companies and customers. She lives in Madison with her husband, daughter, and 110-pound dog.


  1. I love those stairs! Top of my list of things I need to apply the fun theory to are laundry and math homework! There has to be a way.

  2. Caroline, Congrats on your fist post. I agree, fun works. And I would love to see more of it. I think you identified the key ingredient in any fun-based marketing strategy when you said “A critical component of fun is novelty.” Novelty requires constant re-invention and the confidence that you will be able to keep coming up with new ideas. And that requires the client who sponsors such a program to have a fair amount of faith and commitment. Neither of those attributes are easily found in marketing departments today where the mantra seems to be a very short-sighted interpretation of CYA and ROI. I think that’s why most companies don’ take fun seriously. P.S: As soon as you crack the airport security line challenge, please let me know.

  3. Hi Caroline,

    I don’t know if this constitutes “fun”, but my daughter (age 2 at the time) handled the airport security line by lying down and crying buckets while we waited. Surprisingly, as I apologized to the folks behind me for her behavior most of them laughed and said “She’s just daring to do what the rest of us want to.” And a great conversation got started about what would happen if we all sat on the floor and started crying…the line seemed to move much faster after that.

    BTW, love the post. Can’t wait to see the next one.


  4. Thanks all, for the comments! You’re making me feel very welcome already. :)

    Isobel, those are a couple good ones. I suppose it depends on which part of the laundry process is the most arduous. The sorting? Loading/unloading? Folding? For me, it’s the folding…I’d wonder about a folding table that has pressure-sensitive spots that play soothing chimes or funny sounds. I remember liking math homework about as much as I’d probably like repeated hammer blows to the thumb, so no help from me there…

    Sean, thanks so much for the comment! I think another thing that sponsors of “fun” marketing initiatives would need in no short supply is courage. Handing over your brand to that much change and uncertainty is probably as scary as handing it over to the wild, woolly world of social media. But, the payoffs can be jaw-dropping, right?

    Michele, perhaps you’ve stumbled upon something here — maybe what we need in the airport security line is just some way to latch onto authentic expressions of frustration without losing our own cool? Picture this: a large video monitor with a cartoon character. You press a button embedded in the line divider and the character bangs his head on the wall, gnashes his teeth, shakes his fists at the sky…

    Thanks, everyone!

  5. If more people took time out to have fun or to share about fun we would all the less stressed. Caroline your piano post led me to start following promega on Twitter. I wanted to follow you but alas…..

  6. Hey Trevor, you can follow me at @wildwend (and I’d be flattered if you did). I’ll head over to your blog and see what YOU’RE posting about and leave you a comment somewhere with this info, too. Thanks for the comment!

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