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Graffiti and Good Behavior

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The walls in some public bathrooms seem to attract scribbles and markings. But one researcher found a completely effective method to stop graffiti for practically no cost whatsoever.

The story of Professor T. Steuart Watson is recounted in a newspaper article:

Each day, Watson and his minions meticulously counted how many marks were on each wall.

New graffiti popped up every day, in every one of the restrooms.

But “after treatment was implemented”, Watson reveals, “no marking occurred on any of the walls, and they remained free of graffiti at a three-month follow-up”. No marking at all. None. Not a jot. Cleanliness uninterrupted. This was complete, utter success.

The treatment was simple: “Taping a sign on the wall that read, ‘A local licensed doctor has agreed to donate a set amount of money to the local chapter of the United Way for each day this wall remains free of any writing, drawing, or other markings’.”

consultants discuss workplace graffiti

© Flickr user quinn.anya

The success of this project is truly remarkable. These were restrooms where new graffiti appeared every day and where the walls were frequently repainted. The amount of the donation was not included on the sign, so Watson set the amount at a measly five cents per bathroom per day. How could a single piece of paper have such a tremendous influence on behavior?

That same question is posed in the article:

Why was the treatment so very – nay, completely – effective? Watson speculates that “prior to posting the signs, bare walls appeared to function as discriminative stimuli for graffiti, perhaps because it was not apparent that anyone cared. Posting the signs was evidence that a prominent citizen (a doctor) was prepared to pay for results.”

“An alternative explanation,” he says, “is that the presence of the observers prompted restroom users to refrain from writing on walls.”

Both of Watson’s theories suggest that the sign influences motivation. If bathroom visitors feel inspired by the donation, they choose not to leave graffiti because it feels good to support the philanthropic cause. If bathroom visitors feel scrutinized by the notion that someone is checking the wall each day, they are acting out of fear and guilt.

We haven’t been asked to review the markings in any bathrooms here in Indianapolis. Consultants aren’t usually called into to look at that kind of problem. But perhaps we should look not just at the outcome of a situation but the context. Going to the bathroom, after all, is a routine task. This is a “job” that requires a few minutes of our time and is not particularly exciting. Reading the sign encourages bathroom visitors to contemplate the impacts of graffiti, and allows them to take some credit for helping a worthy cause. Going to the bathroom may be a tedious job, but this distraction helps it be a little less boring.

The objective of this study was to cut down on unwanted graffiti. In reality though, the program may have first reduced general malaise or enhanced individual guilt, thus leading to the desired result. At work, we should be conscious of the effects as well as the causes. After all, the office is a place where we actually want employees to be creative. No organization can succeed if the walls always remain bare.

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Robby Slaughter
Robby Slaughter is a workflow and productivity expert. He is a nationally known speaker on topics related to personal productivity, corporate efficiency and employee engagement. Robby is the founder of AccelaWork, a company which provides speakers and consultants to a wide variety of organizations, including Fortune 500 companies, regional non-profits, small businesses and individual entrepreneurs. Robby has written numerous articles for national magazines and has over one hundred published pieces. He is also the author of several books, including Failure: The Secret to Success. He has also been interviewed by international news outlets including the Wall Street Journal. Robby’s newest book is The Battle For Your Email Inbox.
Robby Slaughter


Troublemaker and productivity/workflow expert. Slightly more complex than 140 characters will permit.
@lorraineball First probably depends on the business. But second is likely training, especially with regard to sales. - 4 weeks ago
Robby Slaughter
Robby Slaughter

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