What a Fly Can Teach Us about Business

We like to think we’re in control of our choices. We like to think we deliberately choose our favorite things based on personal preferences and logic— our favorite cereal brands, which route to take to work, which shirt to buy. We choose which movie to see, how much liquid butter to pour on the popcorn, and which person to bring to that movie.

If someone asked you why bought shirt A versus shirt B, you might say something like, “Shirt A is higher quality and it makes my eyes pop. And it was on sale. Of course I bought shirt A.”

You’d be using reason to explain your shirt choice.

Economists who believe in rational choice theory would agree with you. Rational choice theory attests that people make rational, evidence- based decisions that align with their values.

But an airport manager who wanted less urine on his walls has shown something different.

As the story goes, a Dutch cleaning manager placed fly decals on the bottom of urinal drains in the Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam. The idea was to get men to aim at the flies. People usually don’t really like flies, so they generally feel okay about peeing on them… Well, that’s the idea. If men aim at the flies (in the drains), they’ll be less likely to spill outside of the urinals. There were no “Aim for the fly” signs — just little fly decals, waiting to be peed on.

Now, I’m not a man, so I can’t say this with much authority… But it seems like men already aim in the drain, right? I mean, would a little insect target actually change their pee trajectory?

As it turns out, the flies were astonishingly effective at directing pee into the drain. After placing the flies decals, urine outside the urinal reportedly dropped by a whopping 80%. This translated to an estimated 8% reduction in overall bathroom cleaning costs.

So what were these men aiming at before? Did they know they were spraying 80% more urine onto the floor and walls? Probably not. These men most likely had no idea they were missing the drain by that much.

This experiment demonstrates a key element of behavior economics: that even the slightest nudge, even one as small as a fly, can alter our behavior in huge ways.

You might be saying to yourself, “Okay, but that’s just pee. People aren’t that impressionable when it comes to big decisions like money. This doesn’t bear weight on business decisions.”

You’d be surprised. Behavior economics is a field dedicated to understanding the effects of psychology, culture, and emotion on economic decisions.

Many people assume things like psychology, culture, and emotion are unrelated to economic decisions. We like to think we make decisions about money using cold, hard facts — numbers, statistics, etc. But little experiments like the airport manager’s urinal fly and other studies on behavior economics suggest otherwise. These insights into the human psyche have major implications for consumerism.

If a little tiny fly can alter the trajectory of urine by a whopping 80%, little nudges (like flies) matter a lot more than we think they do.

This brilliant idea is the topic of the book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness by Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler (winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2017). In the book, authors champion nudging people to improve their life through small choices, like wearing seat belts, saving for retirement, and voting. Nudges, they say, make it easier for people to do the right thing. Couldn’t we all use a little more of that?

So what can a fly in a urinal teach us about business? That little fly demonstrates the power of a nudge to direct behavior toward the right thing. Businesses truly have the power to improve lives using nudges— whether that means designing cars to beep at unbuckled passengers or automatically enroll employees in pension plans. And that’s powerful.

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