Shame as Morality Inducer

13 Nov

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, then you know how much I delight in both handwritten and Word-generated signs around here.

Remember the “shame, shame” of the stolen air-freshener?

What about the public employees who need silence in order to work?

Or the recent offer of free dog poo?

Well. Bathroom signs are also quite notorious. Who among us hasn’t had the joy of reading all sorts of exhortations about how to dispose properly of waste in the restroom, especially we ladies who even get reminders not to throw diapers, pads, and God-only-knows-what-else-besides-toilet-paper down the tazza?

As a sort-of related aside, I’m reading this book right now called The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty, by Dan Ariely. In it, professor of behavioral economics Ariely reports his findings on all sorts of crazy experiments he conducted with people, to test their capacity to remain honest in various situations.

In one chapter he concludes, “The good news is that people seem to want to be honest, which suggests that it might be wise to incorporate moral reminders into situations that tempt us to be dishonest.” This, in the context of fudging on tax returns or other financial docs, where it’s easy to artificially inflate the numbers. Ariely’s experiments suggest that by adding a reminder and requiring a signature BEFORE completing the form, dishonesty is reduced, because simple reminders and signs get us into the frame of mind that helps to decrease chances of us going off the moral rails.

So that got me to thinking. All these signs, right? It reminded me of something an Italian friend of mine told me, about her hometown of Bolzano, in the German area of Italy. A big joke around here is to say something is “so German” to mean that it’s by the book, straightforward, no-nonsense, no cheating. She told me that on the buses in Bolzano, the signs that tried to get people to ride with a ticket didn’t say things like they do here in Rome, such as “Ride with a ticket or you’ll face a fine of €X!” No. Not there! She said when she was living there, the signs there worked on a sort of “public shaming” principle. Instead of threatening how much your pocketbook would suffer if you got caught, they’d emphasize how much you’d suffer from embarrassment if you got caught. Things with pictures of two big eyes looking out, and spotlights, and phrases to the tune of how you’d feel if everyone saw that you got caught without a ticket. Clearly in that context, it’s so unacceptable to been seen as a cheater, that the price of the public humiliation is higher than what you might pay in the fine itself.

Now, back to our bathroom sign discussion. I could make a pretty decent-sized collection of handwritten bathroom signs. But this one in particular recently had me smiling.


Straight to the point, and with a morality play incorporated. In addition, helpfully placed above the toilet, thus taking advantage of Ariely’s pre-commit-error theory of dishonesty prevention. It says (fast and loosely): “If you’re a civilized person!!! Try not to dirty up the place. Thanks.”

Once again we have the common tactic of overly prolific use of exclamation points. Message not clear or emphatic enough? Oh hell, just add in a few more exclamation points! -!!!- Not only, here they’re inserted to create a complete sentence fragment. So fun!!!! But—the real clincher: not only are we reminded that if we make a big ol’ mess in the bathroom it’s simply not appropriate; if we do so, WE ARE UNCIVILIZED.

Ok, true. It’s a bit of a stretch to say that dirtying a restroom is an act of moral dishonesty. But, still. Isn’t that basically what we’re talking about here? The public decency involved in everyone doing their part to maintain a clean restroom?

Ok, no. You’re right. Has nothing to do with anything.

Fine then. There’s absolutely no justification for me publishing this sign, this post, and these ramblings, other than the fact that it’s just good, clean fun to shame people into behaviors through hand-written, grammatically incorrect signage.

Hey! Speaking of signage, shaming, and general passive-aggressive mayhem, if you liked this post, you’ll love this blog.


4 Responses to “Shame as Morality Inducer”

  1. chillcat November 13, 2013 at 5:53 pm #

    I once saw a bathroom sign in the bar where I hung out in the Dolomites that had me thinking all winter. Who the hell would write this? ‘We are in the twenty-first century now and there are still some people who act like animals. Put your pads in the bins!’ Not accurate as I can’t remember exactly, but there was definitely some sort of time thang going on. Just weird. I think it was the cranky teen who got the sack. Xcat

  2. Sara Rosso November 14, 2013 at 12:17 pm #

    Dan’s great – I’m reading Predictably Irrational right now & I met him a few years ago (he’s an advisor to Automattic as well)

  3. Shelley Ruelle November 21, 2013 at 3:39 pm #

    That’s so cool. I’m enjoying his book a lot.

  4. Rachel November 25, 2013 at 6:54 pm #

    Omg this is great! I just wrote a post about these passive aggressive notes. Love your blog by the way.

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