Econintersect: What action can society take to effect desired behavior? Governments pass laws that mete out punishment to violators. Companies institute performance plans and periodic appraisals for employees. Parents try to imbue their children with character and behavior features that they deem desirable. Teachers grade papers and exams. But are these really the most effective actions to get desired results? An article in Wired presents both discussion and evidence that the best processes may not be used in many cases.One example, developed in detail, involves traffic speed control problems in school zones in a California community. The small city of Garden Grove in Orange County California had a problem with repeated accidents occurring due to excessive speed in school zones. From Wired:
Local authorities had tried many tactics to get people to slow down. They replaced old speed limit signs with bright new ones to remind drivers of the 25-mile-an-hour limit during school hours. Police began ticketing speeding motorists during drop-off and pickup times. But these efforts had only limited success, and speeding cars continued to hit bicyclists and pedestrians in the school zones with depressing regularity.
So city engineers decided to take another approach. In five Garden Grove school zones, they put up what are known as dynamic speed displays, or driver feedback signs: a speed limit posting coupled with a radar sensor attached to a huge digital readout announcing “Your Speed.”
The results fascinated and delighted the city officials. In the vicinity of the schools where the dynamic displays were installed, drivers slowed an average of 14 percent. Not only that, at three schools the average speed dipped below the posted speed limit. Since this experiment, Garden Grove has installed 10 more driver feedback signs. “Frankly, it’s hard to get people to slow down,” says Dan Candelaria, Garden Grove’s traffic engineer. “But these encourage people to do the right thing.”
The instantaneous feedback from an action has a much greater impact on behavior if the desired effect is one that the individual also recognizes as good. That is the case with the Garden City activity – most people think that slower, recommended speeds in a school zone are a good thing. But the dashboard speedometer does not present an overriding, real time feedback and so the roadside sign that does is much more effective.
The efficiency of machine operation and control has long been achieved through the use of electromechanical feedback loops. What hasn’t been implemented to nearly the same extent is bio feedback to improve everyday behavioral processes. Bio feedback is becoming more widely used in medical treatments. But, the “your speed signs” excepted, the technique has not yet been developed for wide use in daily activities.
Imagine if feedback loops could be implemented to give positive reinforcement real time to children in their learning processes. Imagine a feedback loop that could give the overweight a “your speed sign” with every bite of food. Those who have motivation but not the focused concentration could quickly develop the latter.
Feedback loops (unless they were unpleasantly punitive) would do little to help those with no motivation, but there are many with motivation ends up falling short. The article at Wired discusses many feedback loop scenarios that are being explored or may soon be implemented.