Can Zebras Stop Traffic Violations?

Feb 22

Picture this. You’re making your way around the traffic circle in Dupont, glancing at the time knowing that you’re late to meet your friends for brunch. Feeling a little overeager, you inch forward at a red light – inadvertently blocking the pedestrian crosswalk.

With mimosas and eggs benedict on your mind, you’re startled when a zebra suddenly appears in front of your car and breaks out into a dance (for visualization purposes, I’m imaging the running man, Macarena, or the Nae Nae).

You thought no one would notice your seemingly minor violation of traffic decorum. But now people are definitely noticing. Startled and feeling guilty, you look around to see the chortling faces of the pedestrians, bikers, and other drivers.

As you anxiously wait for the light to turn green, the zebra’s dance moves are relentless enough to make embarrassment and humiliation creep into your bones, ensuring an extra level of caution as you continue on your route.

Sound crazy? This is exactly the type of tactic used in both Colombia and Bolivia to nudge drivers toward safer habits.

In the 1990s Bogota’s mayor, Antanas Mockus, “hired 420 mime artists to make fun of traffic violators because he believ[ed] Colombians fear[ed] ridicule more than being fined” according to The Guardian. Turns out that sometimes silence is the answer – the mime experiment helped cut traffic fatalities by over 50%.

Since 2001, La Paz has adopted a similar approach to curbing traffic violations – but with zebras, or cebritas. These cebritas “dance, gesture comically at drivers, and help pedestrians safely cross the street.” An article from The Atlantic notes:

“On a lot of busy corners you will have police directing traffic, but their method of doing it is whistling at you, yelling at you, pulling you over, giving you a ticket,” says Derren Patterson, an American who owns a walking-tour agency in La Paz. “Whereas the way the zebras do it, if a car stops in the crosswalk, they will lay across his hood.”

In addition to their civic duties, they visit local organizations such as schools and hospitals. Those who don the black and white suit of honor range from disadvantaged students earning a small stipend to tourists participating in the “Zebra for a Day” project. Sixteen years after the program started, the original humble herd of 24 zebras has now grown to over 260 volunteers across four cities in Bolivia.

In this instance, I think behavior change by way of a zebra-induced guilt trip works. According to the author and clinical educator Dr. Brené Brown (insert praise hands), guilt can be a healthy thing. The psychological discomfort that arises when we do something against our values (i.e., violating a traffic law) can be a driving force to realign future action with those values (i.e., following the law).

However, I don’t think that leveraging embarrassment to drive behavior change can be universally applied, particularly if the behaviors we are trying to change are often tied to shame – as opposed to guilt. Brown explains that “shame is a focus on self, guilt is a focus on behavior…shame is ‘I am bad’ [and] guilt is ‘I did something bad’.” I would hypothesize that the behaviors many of us fight shame and insecurities about – maintaining a healthy weight, staying active, being financially responsible – would be ill-fit to be addressed with tactics related to embarrassment.

But, when it comes to traffic violations – something that many people would feel a little guilty about, but not necessarily internalize as an ‘I am a terrible person’ – it works.

So, two questions for you:

  1. What do you think would be the most effective guilt-inducing mascot for your city? Zebras? Mimes? Something else?
  2. Do you believe humiliation and embarrassment can be an effective way to drive behavior change?

This entry was posted on Wednesday, February 22nd, 2017 at 4:26 pm and is filed under Behavior Change, Social Marketing. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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