Make The Correct Thing Easy

The core of sociology is one simple truth: individual people can be a mess to predict, but masses of people are easy. Human behavior in aggregate is subject to simple incentives and simple outcomes. Crowds can be studied with models that verge on purely physical, scarcely requiring that even biology play a role. It is not difficult to figure out what humans will do when presented with a certain set of incentives, and one of the insights that follows is that if one wants people to take a certain action, one of the most effective ways to make that happen is to make the correct thing easy.

Trying to rely on the moral, legal, or other intuition or nature of humanity is a folly. Something being “the right” thing to do is not enough to get humans, in aggregate, to do it. Humans are animals with animal brains and that means that once consequences are sufficiently abstracted or hidden, actions feel morally neutral no matter what those consequences are. More than that, riding atop basic moral intuitions about fairness and kindness is the brutal reality of ease, convenience, cognitive dissonance, poverty, practical challenges, and more. In any kind of pinch, people in aggregate will do what is easy.

People will steal if paying is difficult, whether that difficulty is because of artificial barriers like the bus system being exact-change cash-only or practical barriers like not having enough money to survive some other way. People will speed if speeding feels easier and more natural than driving at a safe speed for nearby pedestrians. People will go to work sick if spreading plagues by going to work sick is easier than staying home. People will do all their shopping at big-box stores selling Child Labor Chocolate instead of small shops with better, ethically sourced inventory if the big-box store offers a better value for time and dollars, and it might not even be something the stores are doing that makes the difference. People will live their whole lives not knowing their neighbors’ names if doing that is easier than meeting their neighbors. People will let their leg muscles atrophy into blood clots and sadness if doing so is easier and more pleasant than getting exercise. People will engage in risky sexual behavior if doing so is easier than safe alternatives. People will cheat at school when cheating is easier and more rewarding than succeeding some other way.

This is where conservatives balk and fume. It’s their fault for not doing the correct things, they say, and they should suffer for it. (And that’s when the conservatives are in touch with reality enough to even have the same idea of what the correct things are, which is rarely true anymore.) The thing being correct should be enough even when the entire world’s incentives are lined up to make it as difficult as possible, because it’s the correct thing, and in their minds nothing else is needed…except maybe to get some police batons involved.

But the rest of us must respond to that, so what? If one’s goal is people actually doing the correct, desired things, the fact that those things are correct is demonstrably not enough. It is, in no uncertain terms, irrelevant whether it should be enough. We are not dealing with should, we are dealing with empirical, material reality, and the reality is that people routinely skip doing correct things when doing so is difficult. What we actually need is to optimize the legal, temporal, physical environment to make doing the correct thing easy, pleasant, intuitive, natural, and efficient.

A bright yellow crab with magenta legs, surrounded by the text "I am no longer baby, I want power."
This is how we should think about incentives. This right here.

Fare cards with tap payments increase transit fare compliance because they make payment easier. Pleasant walkable streets increase exercise and shopping at nearby small stores (even small iterations of the same stores that have big-box locations elsewhere) because they make walking easier and more pleasant. People drive slowly and with conscious attention when the physical design of urban landscapes is complex enough that this is the intuitive and natural way to drive. People take public transit when this is easier and more effective at achieving their goals than alternatives are. People live in actual housing instead of alleys and under bridges when having a home is easier for them than not having one.

Enforcement is one of the worst ways to resolve this conundrum. Enforcement, by definition, does not try to make the correct thing easier or more pleasant, but rather, it tries to make incorrect things harder and less pleasant. Enforcement changes none of the reasons that the correct thing seemed easier or nicer before. Whether in the form of a speed-limit sign that changes nothing about a road design, spikes laid under a highway overpass that change nothing about why people are homeless, or locks on store displays of baby formula and spray paint that change nothing about why people want to steal these items, enforcement paradigms have as their first and foremost result a net negative in overall happiness and societal well-being. Problems are not being solved, lives are not being made easier, and lives are not made better when this is the tool used to try to shape behavior on a sociological scale. Enforcement cannot be as omnipresent as it would need to be to do more than drive these behaviors into hiding, compounding their harm with secrecy and loss of social support while, still, changing nothing about why people want to do them. There is a role for making incorrect things harder, most notably in restraining the behavior of the powerful, and no modern North American enforcement paradigm recognizes how limited this tool can be.

But urban planning knows it. Public health knows it. Advice about managing chaos in the home knows it. Social-democratic countries trying out giving poor people money and homeless people homes know it. Sociology knows it.

In the end, the conclusion is as simple as it is earth-shaking, and as inimical to conservative thinking as anything else that isn’t both wrong and hateful:

It is the duty of the people who have the power to change how things are

to work toward making sure

that doing the easy thing

and doing the correct thing

are the same.


Make The Correct Thing Easy