The Magic Lottery of Dog Poop

Cities are fun places to live but can present a challenge to our four-legged friends and their owners. On more than one occassion, I have only just narrowly averted disaster by side-stepping a recent warm deposit on the footpath. It is, of course, the owner’s responsibility to clean up after their beloved pets. However, not every owner is diligent in adhering to this social obligation and will conveniently have their attention diverted while Lassie attends to the call of nature. While these owners may prefer to turn a blind eye, their actions have a significant impact on the rest of us as dog waste is not only an eyesore and inconvenience but also a significant health and environmental hazard.

Singapore, as do most cities, adopts a punishment-based approach to moderating this behaviour. Owners can be fined up to SGD1,000 for not cleaning up after their dogs. Although it’s a significant financial deterrent, punitive policies require a high degree of constant policing. In order to be fined an offender must be caught in the act or sufficient evidence provided of the transgression. Further, the monitoring and collecting of this information can be quite an administrative burden, which is why some authorities are considering alternative methods to ensure that citizens do the right thing.

Turning dog poop into gold

Yes, you're very cute, but what you just left behind is not...

In an effort to clean the streets of New Taipei City in Taiwan, the municipality launched a campaign during 2011, encouraging dog owners to clean up after their furry friends. By collecting and handing in waste to government cleaning teams, participants received tickets for a lucky draw, with a chance to win one of three gold ingots worth up to T$60,000 (SGD2,250). “Through the raffle, we expect the public to pay closer attention to environmental sanitation and play a more active role in keeping their surroundings clean,”said New Taipei City Environmental Protection Department official Chen Chao-mint when the campaign was launched. The campaign was planned to run from August to October but was so successful it was extended by several months. Prizes were awarded in October with more prizes added subsequently. It’s interesting to note that it was not only dog owners who handed in waste but also residents who did not own dogs. Some sources claim that the campaign contributed to halving the amount of dog waste found in the city. The campaign has since ended (the city could not afford to maintain the gold rewards) but the council are hopeful that good habits have been instilled within dog owners. [@RecogPattern tried to contact the municipality to ascertain the level of street cleanliness since the campaign ended but have not yet received a response.]

The lure of lotteries

The lottery mechanic can be very effective in encouraging certain behaviours but it’s not just due to the motivation of cold hard cash. Firstly, lotteries provide participants with an opportunity to win without a specific skill requirement, just a basic action required to enter such as the purchase of a ticket. Secondly, a single participant has just as much chance of winning as anyone else, consequently there’s a perceived degree of equity and fairness. Thirdly, since the prospect of winning is randomised, it adds a level of novelty, excitement and surprise to the activity lighting up all kinds of pleasure centres in the brain.

Richard Thaler and Cass Suntein have explored the notion of choice through psychology and behavioural economics in their book “Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness”. Thaler recently posted Making Good Citizenship Fun exploring the use of lotteries to encourage positive behaviour while Wired also featured an article on The Psychology of Lotteries.

Carrot or stick?

Although New Taipei City implemented the lottery system to reward citizens who kept the streets poop-free, punitive methods were still enforced at the same time such as asking residents to photograph offenders, who would then face fines (part proceeds put towards a reward for the informant), indicating that perhaps in this instance, reward alone was not sufficient to encourage the desired behaviour.

Punishment and reward are both forms of extrinsic rather than intrinsic behaviour (this topic covered in a previous post). Being fined or receiving a monetary reward are external forces imposed on the individual. However, the responsible citizen who believes that picking up after their dog is just “the right thing to do” is motivated by an intrinsic reward: they have maintained a poop-free street.

Double or nothing! Or maybe not…

Rewards are obviously more pleasant to receive than punishment but when combined with an uncertain outcome, their lure is contingent on the individual’s personality and appetite for risk. Some people are more risk-aversive than others and will prefer a course of action that will lead to minimal reward but with a lower probability of a bad outcome. Others will choose a higher probability of a bad outcome with their goal set on the higher reward.

Balancing risk and reward is a task that resonates with gamers. Games are designed to provide players with a range of choices, each with their own set of short and long term consequences. Do I seek out extra ammo but risk running into more goons? Do I focus on leveling up my melee skills while leaving myself vulnerable to an enemy with long range weapons? While playing Monopoly do I focus on buy utilities or railroads? Games allow players to test different scenarios and understand the consequences of their actions while learning about their own appetite for risk.

Positive outcomes for everyone

Aside from encouraging good behaviour, there’s another important positive outcome to implementing a reward-based incentive program: a pleasant experience for the administrators themselves. We love to give good news but hate being the bearer of bad news. And does anyone but a complete sadist actually enjoy making people feel bad while taking their money? Wouldn’t the workplace be a much more enjoyable place in which to work if customers’ interaction with that department was one of surprise and delight rather than frustration, resentment and anger? (Automated telephone answering services I’m talking to YOU.)

We each have a responsibility for the way we treat others and yet the processes and procedures of many organisations often dehumanise interactions, whether those experiences are navigating a website, filling in a hard copy form, endlessly on hold during a telephone call or waiting in a queue. Why do organisations settle for “customer satisfaction” instead of setting the bar higher and aiming for “customer joy”? I believe that customer joy is actually a by-product of an organisation that values their employees, encourages them to take pride in the service they provide, facilitates their ability to provide that service to a high standard (you’d be surprised how many don’t) while bestowing regular, consistent positive feedback.

Easier said than done

The carrot is obviously more appealing than the stick but the answer isn’t just about throwing rewards left, right and centre. Individuals vary greatly in their aversions to punishment and appetite for reward, not just in quantity but also quality. The context in which a campaign is implemented also demands a hard look at the overall outcome that is to be achieved, whether the primary interaction is online or offline and there’s a big difference between encouraging a good behaviour versus discouraging a bad one.

Although long-term effectiveness has yet to be seen, the municipality of New Taipei City definitely deserve a thumbs up for trying to implement a new model of modifying citizen behaviour through the use of rewards rather than punishment alone. So the next time you venture outdoors, strolling your city’s streets, spare a thought for the poop-free street and what it takes to keep it that way.

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2 thoughts on “The Magic Lottery of Dog Poop

  1. This reminds me of :

    I am also curious on how this actually works (practically) But I can imagine it working this way,

    1) A huge bin for the poops (tied in a bag, please) with an NFC scanner
    2) Before throwing first bag of poop, players scan their ID card by placing their card on the slot (Singapore’s ezlink top up station)
    3) As they toss, the nett weight increment will be revealed. More weight = higher chances.
    4) After last bag of poop, users remove ID.

    I guess it is very important interactivity remains low for 2 reasons

    1) easy to operate
    2) hygiene (i wouldnt wanna meddle too much with a machine when I can’t be sure if the previous user was as hygienic as me)

  2. I also thought of that video when I read about the dog lottery :) My understanding is that the campaign was very manual, that is, it involved someone handing in the waste and then receiving a paper based ticket. What you describe is an automated version which could track contributions from specific individuals and certainly reward the user for volume rather than units :) In implementing this type of solution, it would be useful to also consider the comparative cost of implementing a technology solution versus one based purely on manpower. But great thinking of how to streamline the process!

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