I just watched a terrific TEDx talk given by Rory Sutherland. Sutherland convincingly contends that reality alone is not a good guide to human happiness, and that the importance of perception is often ignored by designers, planners, branders and other economists.
Case in point: He argues that red traffic lights leads to frustration and road rage because motorists do not know how long they have to wait. He points to a “countdown” red light deployed in South Korea that cut down the accident rates. The light has an outer circle that allows the motorist to know how much longer he or she has to wait. This, in turn, cuts down on angst and frustration (while, of course, not changing the amount of time that the motorist must wait). He pointed out that the reverse – a green light that has a countdown feature – encouraged speeding and bad driving, however.
Sutherland presented another traffic example to bolster his position. In Great Britain, they have an express toll lane for those willing to pay double to get through the toll quicker. The premise of the express lane is that people place different values on time and money. Although economically efficient, people generally hated it. Sutherland suggests that the objection to the two classes of tolls is eliminated if the extra money collected at the double toll was all given to charity. People’s mental willingness to pay completely changes with this one pivot. Now the economically efficient solution actually meets with public opinion.
Sutherland’s premises — that things are not what they are but rather what we think they are — provides a good lesson for traffic control planners as well as other life situations.