Malevolent staircase

I’ve written before about the social marketing email list. I read about this interesting website from a recent post to the list.

It’s a report essentially about brainstorming different ways to market for increased seatbelt use. Called Unconscious Motivators and Situational Seatbelt Use: Literature Review and Results from an Expert Panel Meeting, it was published August 2006 by U.S. Department of Transportation, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. It’s really well-researched and written, and it’s totally fascinating reading.

One of many topics in the report that I found intriguing and thought-provoking:

Panelists agreed that wearing a safety belt poses a challenge to the sense of personal control driving creates. Thus, one of the panelists’ main recommendations is that any campaign promoting the use of belts must do so in such a way that it does not threaten this sense of control.

The trick, according to panelists, is to work within these illusions of control : “I think there has to be something in the message, or something in the use, that allows it [to] be used without it being perceived as an infringement on control.

For example, one panelist talked about the fact that he refuses to engage in some safety behaviors because he does not want to confront the degree to which he is not in control over his life outcomes.

Thus, he said : ‘There are things I won’t do in my life that are rationally stupid … but it is almost like I refuse to take all these precautions because the quality of my life just seems less if I have to worry’…

[So, any campaign] has got to be framed and defined as a behavior that has nothing to do with your limited personal control over your life.

They went on to brainstorm about ways it might be possible to promote belt use without threatening personal control:

Finally, panelists said that there must be a gentle way to remind people that they are not always in control.

One panelist cited a line from a play by TS Eliot where you “find that there is one more step than you expected there to be, and suddenly, at the bottom of the staircase, you turn from an active agent … who is in control of his destiny, into what Eliot calls ‘an object [a]t the mercy of a malevolent staircase.’”

What’s fascinating is the broad range of ideas that come from the panel – ideas about different ways to ‘manipulate’ human psychology to affect behavioural change. The possible applications of this seem huge.

Though loss of personal control is uncomfortable for many people, considering seatbelt use to be a threat to personal choice might not apply to us all. I wonder if it’s a more American thing.

Nonetheless, there seem to be interesting ways to apply this marketing around loss of personal control. For example – in Australia, voting is mandatory, even for citizens based outside of the country. I can imagine a lot of resistance if such a law was passed in a country where voting or not voting is a personal decision.

In Canada, though, where voting in federal elections has gone down quite a bit in the past 15 years or so, I wonder how this ‘personal control’ factor might be brought into strategizing a campaign to increase voter participation? Campaigns that say ‘you should’, ‘you ought to’, ‘your responsibility’, may be ineffective.

How else could that piece of information be applied?

Imagine a country that’s perceived to be a ‘fragile state’ or ‘crisis state’, where there is a degree of citizen apathy about everyone working personally to try to change the situation. For those not actively working for change, is facing the conflict directly too much like acknowledging the malevolent staircase? How then can could campaigns be altered in a way that might convince them to become involved?

At any rate, out of curiosity I found the full text leading up to the malevolent staircase:

“… There’s a loss of personality
Or rather, you lost touch with the person
You thought you were.
You no longer feel quite human.
You’re suddenly reduced to the status of an object —
A living object, but no longer a person.
It’s always happening, because one is an object
As well as a person.
But we forget about it
As quickly as we can.
When you’ve dressed for a party
And are going downstairs, with everything about you
Arranged to support you in the role you have chosen.
Then sometimes, when you come to the bottom step
There is one step more than your feet expected
And you come down with a jolt.
Just for a moment
You have the experience of being an object
At the mercy of a malevolent staircase.”

— TS Eliot, The Cocktail Party (1950)

Photo by RMBYoung

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