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In a world of increasing globalization people with very different experiences and backgrounds are bound to interact even more intensely. The nudge approach offers its own ways of smoothing the process and Singapore leads the way.

A symbiosis of social coordination and nudging

Imagine coming to a country where most of your daily commuting was guided by colorful signs, where huge arrows told you which line to stand in and tiny cartoon kittens implored you to recycle your trash or limit your use of plastic bags. Well, guess what, this “Nudgetopia” exists and its name is Singapore.

What Vegas is to gambling, Singapore is to the use of behavioral strategies in its public spaces, everything is bigger, brighter and weirder. Yet, even for a cold headed scandinavian this far reaching communal strategy for guiding both native citizens and foreigners starts making sense in city with one of the highest and most diverse populations in the world.

Singapore, which is pretty much just one gigantic city, has 5.800.000 citizens, and 40 pct. (or 2.320.000) of these are expats living there from anything between weeks to decades. Add an additional influx of 10.000.000 tourists per year and you have a cultural melting pot that makes the US seem homogenous in comparison.


The unwritten rules

In most European countries, such a vast influx of foreigners, all used to several different behavioral “rules”, combined with Singapore´s very limited amounts of public space, would quickly ensure that public life broke down. With our many (and often inconspicuous) rules for public behavior, we expect everyone to know what to do and how to interact without needing explicit guidance. These implicit rules get us by to such an extent that foreigners almost always get them wrong, which in turn ensures that they stand out from the locals. Although these occurrences can be a source of much amusement (usually more for the locals than the tourists), it also slows down the public pace and increases the risk of accidents.


For a country like Singapore to function properly, it needs social coordination that enables everyone to get by in day to day life without constantly having to exert energy on “figuring out the rules”. This concept or strategy isn’t nudging per se. The key when coordinating social life is efficiency first and foremost and simple social coordination is being done all over the world with no particular eye towards increasing pro-social behavior, health or happiness. For instance when we tell people to stand at one side of the escalators so that people can walk past them or mark where pedestrians should cross the street so that traffic can run smoothly. Neither of these would be necessary in a village (the villagers would simply know all this by heart), but crucial in a city with many different people from many different places are mingling and interacting all at once.


Salience, Visual Perception and Conjunctive Norms

What makes Singapore stand out is the city’s symbiosis of social coordination and nudging resulting in a fluent and easy environment for both foreigner and natives to get by. The following are but a few examples:

Promoting the stairs by salience and visual cues.

Promoting the stairs by salience and visual cues.

Nudging stairs through salience and visual cues

An escalator has many advantages for people being in a hurry. While ascending half of the work is being done for you and you can arrive at the top in about half the time as if you had chosen the regular stairs. Sadly this advantage hasn’t gone by unnoticed and thus you will often find yourself on a clogged up, slow-moving escalator while glancing envious to the left at those overtaking you on the wide open stairs.

This scenario does not only produce a problem for the speed on which pedestrians can move from A to B, it also removes the chance of getting a small amount of exercise that would make a huge difference in the long run. A solution to this problem might be located in this example from Singapore where salience (the colors of the stairs) and visual cues (the pictogram of a walking man)  primes the pedestrians to take the stairs rather than the escalator.

The speed-reducing traffic nudge

The speed-reducing traffic nudge.

Now-a-days a car will provide you with a mirage of information while you are driving: Speedometer, Tachometer and even a roadside thermometer – which of all are useful inputs for safe (and legal) driving. But driving is not like solving a mathematical equation as much as it is a “gut-feeling” or to put it in more technical terms we often measure our driving from informations provided by our visual perception of the surroundings and process it through the automatic system (which unfortunately doesn’t provide you with the correct information).

In Singapore they have used this knowledge of how we estimate speed to help drivers slow down on stretches of road that has a high risk of accidents. The horizontal lines make it seem like the driver is going faster and thus he is more likely to slow down.



No Pets Allowed

No Pets Allowed

Walking through a park you have properly stumbled upon a sign saying “Don’t step on the grass!” and while the message is clear you might have found yourself wondering “why not?”. A likely answer would be (or so my abilities of deduction concludes) that a park frequently visited by a large amount of people would quickly find itself without any grass if walking on it was allowed. However, since this is not stated on the sign it appears almost as a “dare” and more often than not visitors will put it to the test with no salient consequences for either them or the park (other then an almost invisible portion of the collective destruction of the grass).

Singapore, being such a densely populated country, is no exception – but instead of doubling the amount of park rangers to keep people in check they found a way to incorporate a nudge into their park signs. Studies show that if you frame the message of a sign into a positive conjunctive norm people tend to follow. The example (the picture to the right) shows how a typical pictogram of a dog is followed not only by an explanation to why you can’t bring pets into the forest but a premature expectation that you concur, formulated in a positive manner (Thank you for your co-operation).


The above mentioned examples are only a handful of the well-planed nudges you stumble upon when moving around in Singapore but many more exist out there if you know where to look.


What we can learn from “Nudgetopia”

So, what can we learn from Singapore? You may flinch at the notion of having our public spaces covered in signs telling you everything from how to stand in line, to what and how you should eat.However, it’s highly unlikely that most cities in the world will ever reach the same level of symbiosis of social coordination and nudging as Singapore in any near future since very few cities are as densely packed with so much cultural variation. Still the global trend is moving towards an increased urbanization, and one result of the strong pressure towards fine-tuning social coordination by nudging is Singapore´s emerging status as one of the worlds best real-world laboratories when it comes to this particular branch of Nudge.

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4 Responses

  1. Ahmed

    I love it! I’ve always thought about this concept when stumbling on all the rude signs around here (North Carolina, USA). Even a simple “please” on a sign can totally change the viewers attitude.

  2. A

    Hi! Interesting article you have written. As a Singaporean, I didn’t really realise some of the nudges you mentioned, having being ‘conditioned’ into this lifestyle since young. However, I feel the need to point out a few things about what you wrote. I am not exactly sure if you are praising Singapore, or making commentary on how easy it is to control Singaporeans with the proper psychological approaches in mind. Haha. If the former – you give Singapore too much credit. If the latter – it’s ok, we are not offended as many feel this way too.

    With regard to slowing down on turns, I agree that the lines help to remind drivers to slow down, but not because of the reason you mentioned. Instead of it being a visual cue, I think it is more of a tactile cue when the driver experiences the car bumping along over the raised lines. As it is mildly unpleasant, the driver will slow down so as to approach the bumps with more caution and to reduce discomfort. Nonetheless, I agree that it works as a visual reminder as well, though not primarily so. Since you are a visitor yourself, it is probably unlikely that you had the chance to encounter these bends yourself while in charge of a vehicle, but you made a good guess!

    Another point of contention is that I feel you might be exaggerating a bit when you say that we have signs telling you “how to stand in line, to what and how you should eat.” What do you mean by “how” to stand in line? Have you seen signs that say if you should stand, sit, or squat while queuing? Or do you mean like a directional ‘how’? I hate to break it to you, but you can find signs telling you where the line starts in many countries around the world. Think about Black Friday Sales in America for example!

    Also, “to what and how you should eat”? I miiiiight be able to allow the standing in line thing, but I don’t recall ever seeing any signs in Singapore telling me what and how I should eat.. unless you are referring to a sign saying “EAT EVERYTHING IN WHATEVER MANNER YOU PLEASE”. As you mentioned, Singapore is a melting pot of nationalities, so I’d be hard pressed to believe that signs exist dictating how people should eat. With so many different cultures, people have their own different foods and eating styles, which is in fact what makes Singapore the food haven that it is. I would allow it if you mentioned signs telling you not to bring food into certain places, but that along with the “Please ‘Q’ Here” signs is nothing particularly unique to Singapore.

    On the one hand, a lot of these signs can be found in many countries all over the world, making Singapore no leading expert on behavioural studies. On the other hand, I do agree that there is a lot of social coordination in Singapore, which I am proud of. However, it should be noted that this did not come about by simply implementing eye-catching icons and marketing, but from roots which reach deeper into things like upbringing, education, family values, and culture. Foreigners and locals alike will quickly learn that it is not polite to talk loudly on the train because of all the glares they will get from others, and this mannerism (or nudge) is passed down from generations of living in a conservative culture.

    The thing is, this is probably the same for other foreign countries too. Every nation has its own set of unwritten rules and social norms which require nudges from various places in order to grasp. But I can also see how Singapore might stand out from the others, considering how greatly invested the public sector is in the way private citizens conduct themselves!

    It is always nice to know that on the whole, foreigners seem to have a very good impression of Singapore. But don’t stay for too long! Or else you might accidentally find out our bald spots and not think that we’re pretty anymore. Anyway, sorry for the mini essay, but I just felt like sharing some of my thoughts with you!

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