Elevator Use, Public Shame, and the Public Good

Imagine you enter a building and get on an elevator bound for the tenth floor. And someone else gets in and presses the button for the second floor. You begin a process of silent rage, cursing them for adding an additional stop to your elevator trip, just one short flight of stairs above where they got on.

But what if there were a way to eliminate this problem, or at least reduce it? One solution that I have often yearned for is the use of public shame. Imagine you get on at the first floor and press the button for the second floor. The elevator responds with a recorded message: “You have pressed the button for a floor that is only one flight away. Please press the button again to confirm that you cannot use the stairs.”

If you’re carrying a package, having trouble walking, or any other socially acceptable reason, no doubt the other passengers will think nothing of you pressing the button again to confirm your selection. However, if you are in fact an able-bodied human being, who is using the elevator out of nothing but sheer laziness, perhaps public shame will force you to reconsider your choice. And if you’re the only one on the elevator, press away!

In fact, I recently stumbled across an announcement to similar effect. On the automated train at Denver International Airport, if someone blocks the doors from closing, there is announcement which informs you that you are actually delaying other passengers by standing in the door. I didn’t ride the train enough to confirm that it was working, but I’m hopeful.

My dream is that one day all automated systems will use public shame for the public good.

Update: After reading the comments, I now realize how much I blew it with this one! Everyone’s thoughtful feedback has been great. This post was meant to offer a lighthearted, albeit not well-thought-out, “game-mechanics” approach about how to deal with a common occurrence. However, there are clearly issues with it.

First, as Maria Popova’s comment noted, there were a few terms here that complicated matters. In addition to “rage” being a bit of hyperbole that clearly backfired, “public shame” was also a poor word choice, and something related to collective behavior would have been far better. Shame is a very bad way to deal with this problem, as Brene Brown, a researcher who studies shame and vulnerability, has mentioned. Providing positive reinforcement rather than negative reinforcement is much more preferable for dealing with this. And certainly, any effective solution would need to properly deal with people with disabilities in a respectful and sensitive manner.

Ultimately, the real problem is how to get more people to take the stairs, and use an elevator in the most efficient way for the most people possible. One potential solution noted on Twitter, using reward rather than punishment or humiliation, is this creation. And in the meantime, the best solution for now is simply to be more patient and understanding, instead of getting annoyed at these minor daily disruptions.

Thanks for all the comments!

62 Responses to “Elevator Use, Public Shame, and the Public Good”

  1. yomikoma January 20, 2011 at 11:28 am Permalink

    Seems like a good idea at first but I think it would do more harm than good. There are plenty of people with non-obvious disabilities who look like they could take the stairs but may actually need the elevator.

  2. Brigid January 20, 2011 at 11:57 am Permalink

    There are tons of office buildings that discourage stair use. I’ve often decided to take the stairs for a couple flights, gotten into the poorly-lit staircase, walked up to my floor to find the door locked. All the doors are locked, except the ground floor, which has a big sign: alarm will sound when this door is opened. Lots of office buildings are not equipped to use the stairs other than for emergency purposes.

  3. Samuel Arbesman January 20, 2011 at 12:09 pm Permalink

    @yomikoma This is a reasonable point. Not sure how a group in an elevator would handle that situation.

    @Brigid This is the problem! More buildings should be staircase-friendly.

  4. Paul Zummo January 20, 2011 at 12:32 pm Permalink

    As someone who deals with silent elevator rage on a daily basis, I can’t endorse this idea heartily enough. Can we apply this to trains as well and all of the people who feel it necessary to cram onto crowded trains, delaying the train’s departure, while there is a train right behind the one at the station?

  5. mary martha January 20, 2011 at 3:48 pm Permalink

    I used to get ‘elevator rage’ but then… my best friend was diagnosed with MS.

    She *looks* like she could walk up a flight of stairs… but she really can’t. I can’t think of a way to do this (special IDs?) without making her feel bad.

    Now when I see someone who uses the elevator for one flight up I think to myself that they may *need* that elevator for their one flight more than I honestly need it for my ten flights of stairs.

  6. Anon January 20, 2011 at 3:58 pm Permalink

    Good point, yomikoma. It’d leave people with non-obvious but non-stair-climbable disabilities in the tough situation of having everyone mad at them or having to tell a car full of strangers about their disability every. single. time. I’m not shy about telling people about my medical issues when I know them at least a little and it’s relevant. But that situation would make me squirm.

    I’m not sure how many buildings this would be appropriate for. As Brigid pointed out, some buildings are not designed for stair use, and often it’s for good reason. In many buildings, each floor belongs to a different company, so there’s no reason for people to move between floors other than their own and ground.

    The idea still makes me grin, though.

  7. Samuel Arbesman January 20, 2011 at 4:02 pm Permalink

    @ Mary Martha Agreed. A somewhat gentler method is needed, though I’m not sure what a good solution would be. This was written more to get people thinking than to actually provide the answer to this problem. In the meantime, the best solution is probably just being more patient.

  8. Tom January 20, 2011 at 5:45 pm Permalink

    Don’t worry about what the other person does. Just do the right thing yourself. Have some patience when others don’t choose the same path.

  9. Jason January 20, 2011 at 7:39 pm Permalink

    The international airport in Auckland, New Zealand will go on the loudspeaker and call out to those who are late to the gate saying, “You are delaying the flight for your fellow passengers.”

  10. Google Reader January 20, 2011 at 7:46 pm Permalink

    Just who decides what’s considered shameful. And is this really a problem?

  11. Some guy January 20, 2011 at 11:35 pm Permalink

    There is no elevator policy. Your expectations for when/how/why people can use the elevator are the problem.

  12. BG January 21, 2011 at 1:05 pm Permalink

    People have apologized to me for taking the elevator 1 floor before–there is already a sense of shame in doing this. I always tell them that this is what the elevator is for, and if I didn’t want to wait for other, I could take the stairs myself (granted my building is only 6 floors). Plus, I have MS too, and while I can still take the stairs today, who knows what tomorrow brings!

  13. Veridical Driver January 21, 2011 at 1:10 pm Permalink

    I think that people who experience elevator rage are much bigger social problems than people who use the elevator to go up one story.

    Seriously, what kind of dangerous, socially unstable maniac feels angry because someone else is using the elevator. If you experience “elevator rage”, it means you have a serious psychological problem and you should speak to a professional ASAP.

  14. Andy January 21, 2011 at 1:13 pm Permalink

    The point of all this is that you are no longer supposed to get mad at the person who only rides the elevator one floor. You’ve shamed any able-bodied person into using the stairs so you can safely assume anyone who sticks around for the second button press is disabled. No hard feelings, even if you are a lazy bum.

    Also, at my office (3 stories), you can’t get from the first floor to the second or third via stairs unfortunately. I always take the stairs down though.

  15. Robert Speirs January 21, 2011 at 1:15 pm Permalink

    Why in the world should one ever be “ashamed” to use an elevator? For one thing, elevators are quicker. I always use the stairs, just to get a bit of a workout, even though I know that the benefits of exercise are grossly exaggerated. However, I have never yet beaten anyone else on my floor who came in the door the same time I did and used the elevator. This elevator Puritanism is getting out of hand. Since elevators are quicker, they get people in and out quicker, making it possible for more people to be handled in the same time. And the time advantage of elevators increases as the number of floors increases.

    And how will you ever know if your sales pitch is short and punchy enough if you can’t try it out on someone in an elevator?

  16. Anon January 21, 2011 at 1:18 pm Permalink

    This little humorous post created a lot of anger. This is a pretty common gripe and can be a big waste of time for workers in older building with 10+ floors.

  17. Jake January 21, 2011 at 1:27 pm Permalink

    In some of the skyscrapers in Japan, there are ‘express’ elevators that only service certain sections of the building. You’re expected to wait your turn to get on the correct elevator, and hopefully everyone’s day is inconvenienced a little more.

    Your proposal does remind me of my first college dorm. If you took the elevator for anything less than the 4th floor, you were harangued on the way up. Shame did work wonders.

  18. Jake January 21, 2011 at 1:31 pm Permalink

    That should read “inconvenienced a little less.” Woops.

  19. Daran January 21, 2011 at 1:34 pm Permalink

    Hmm, where to start?
    1> Playing that message and waiting for input would only increase the delay,
    2> If you are really silently raging and cursing at people who cause a little inconvenience, I’d suggest focusing on some attitude improvements over elevator modifications,
    3> Can we extend this to general workplace behavior? Will we have announcements like: ‘everyone please work a little harder to compensate for employee xxx who is taking his third smoking/toilet break of the day’
    4> Can we extend it to other areas? ‘Mr yyy, you are currently registered as studying/unemployed, are you sure you need to visit this movie theater rather than work on your job skills’?

  20. Mansfield January 21, 2011 at 1:44 pm Permalink

    Kind of lazy to want the elevator to harass the passengers instead of doing it yourself.

  21. Christina January 21, 2011 at 2:10 pm Permalink

    I just entered my third trimester of pregnancy and take the elevator up one flight of stairs all the time now. I don’t know what it is about pregnancy that makes climbing even a single flight of stairs torture. I used to apologize and explain because I do feel sheepish and for most of my second trimester, if you didn’t know me personally you might have been confused as to whether or not I was pregnant or just fat. But yeah, this is a terrible idea–some people have non-obvious disabilities. Others find climbing stairs makes them uncomfortable. Just deal with the extra five seconds out of your day.

  22. zandperl January 21, 2011 at 2:11 pm Permalink

    And what’s wrong with waiting for someone to get off on the second floor? It’s definitely not worth shaming people with invisible disabilities just so that typically abled people can save 10 seconds on their already long elevator trip. If you want to save time, you take the stairs. Even going up it’s usually faster than waiting for the elevator.

    As for what would happen in your proposed scenario for someone with an invisible disability, people in the elevator would assume they’re just lazy and don’t have a disability, and people with invisible disabilities shouldn’t have to explain themselves to get out of accusing glares if they don’t want to.

  23. one.person January 21, 2011 at 2:34 pm Permalink

    In my building, and many I have been in, the second floor is not just 1 flight up, but several flights up. The first floor has much higher ceilings than the rest of the building…..

  24. Bellisaurius January 21, 2011 at 3:16 pm Permalink

    I wonder if buildings encourage stair use because of the liability issues. I mean, anyone can fall on the stairs and sustain a decent injury at any given time.

    Escalators provide an example. Here is a story about toronto’s transit commision and there policy about discouraging people from walking up the escalator because in the year in question 138 people fell on them, with 50 going to the hospital. http://www.cbc.ca/canada/toronto/story/2007/06/22/ttc-signs.html.

  25. mike January 21, 2011 at 3:44 pm Permalink

    Gee whiz, Sam. I guess the unpredictably high percentage of people that have either MS or a fetus inside them makes this a bad idea. Who knew that was such a large percentage of the population? Maybe we shouldn’t even have stairs in buildings, so people with invisible disabilities don’t get upset. But then that wouldn’t be safe if there was a fire. Oh, we can just stop having stairs AND fires in buildings. Seriously, people need to lighten up. Want to get pissed at something? Try this on:

    I took my wife’s minivan (with the 2 car seats in the back) to the grocery store. The kids were not with me. I parked in the “Expectant mothers and mothers with small children” spot and figured nobody would question a minivan with a couple car seats in the back. Score one for the politically incorrect!

  26. Lee January 21, 2011 at 3:53 pm Permalink

    “Need” appears to be a relative term. I lived for awhile on the 10th floor of a sixteen floor building in Eastern Europe. In all of my experience, elevators in this beautiful place were, at best, a gamble. Elevators are sporadic there, often (meaning several times a week) out of commission. Little old ladies (Babushkas) lived in the building, and often made the climb, as there were no other options. No complaining, as it happened so often. Not easy, but they did it. I fear that many here, in the U.S., have been conditioned to fall apart at the slightest breech of convenience. Many folks in other places around the world, exist without the use of such conveniences, suffering far greater inconveniences, without any of the complaining so common here. Yet, people there continue to struggle through harsh climates, and depressed (or oppressed, such as the case may be) economies, living fairly happy lives. Americans, once among the hardiest of folk, have become weak and lazy. (most, anyway). This, in no way, impugns those who have disabilities, however notes that folks around the world cope with life’s disabilities differently. Much comes down to attitude. 80 year old women, carrying the day’s groceries through the icy streets (not plowed, no maintenance other than their neighbor’s efforts to spread some sand around), climbing the stairs with their burdens. No complaints. Contrast this with the American counterpart, a middle aged woman sitting in store-provided electric scooter, unable to continue her shopping at the Walmart because the elevator isn’t working (she could have used the escalator), complaining and carrying on for all to see and hear. (Keep in mind that she walked into the store after parking her car and walking across the parking lot – all on video). Makes me sick.

  27. Jens Fiederer January 21, 2011 at 4:29 pm Permalink

    Our building only has two stories, so nobody uses the elevator for more than one floor. I’m not sure I’ve ever been inside the elevator.

    @Robert Speirs, though: a brisk walk beats the elevator EVERY time for a single floor….even if the elevator moved instantaneously, just the doors opening and closing would take longer than two little flights! I’ve had many opportunities to test this, and I have to stop and wait at the top if one of my friends chose the slower, automatic route.

  28. JBird January 21, 2011 at 4:57 pm Permalink

    The answer is to program judgment into the elevator. 10 is pressed and someone presses 2? One pass through the judgment software and the elevator runs straight to 10 first, then returns to the 2nd floor stopping for all waiting passengers on the way down.

    Even lazy rats will run through a maze if conditioned properly.

  29. Kelly January 21, 2011 at 6:33 pm Permalink

    Seconding yomikoma. What right do you have to embarrass someone into disclosing their disability because you’re too impatient to wait five seconds for someone else to get off the elevator? Might I suggest waking up a little earlier if you don’t like the inconvenience, instead of making assumptions about strangers because you feel more entitled than them? Or if you don’t want to wait, might I suggest taking the stairs?

  30. Ron January 21, 2011 at 7:42 pm Permalink

    Riders who are annoyed because other riders are too lazy to walk one floor up, should set the example by taking the stairs one floor up before boarding the elevator. It would also save them aggravation since few riders enter on the first and egress on the second.

  31. Htquelli January 21, 2011 at 8:36 pm Permalink

    Because you feel uncomfortable micromanaging the decisions of everyone around you, you would like a machine installed in all elevators to automatically micromanage for you, not just situations that you are actually in, but all elevator experiences for all people. Fascist.

  32. Tom January 21, 2011 at 9:02 pm Permalink

    In my experience the stairs are either nowhere to be found, disgusting, or they lock a certain way so you can only go in one direction (down). We need to lobby for open, well lit, large staircases out in the lobby with the elevators tiny and tucked away in some random corner before this reform will be particularly helpful.

  33. Kieran January 21, 2011 at 11:05 pm Permalink

    If I got into an elevator like that, I would respond by pressing the buttons for all the floors.

  34. Frank January 22, 2011 at 4:34 am Permalink

    Ah, who owns the elevator? We have a common pool problem here: Those going only a few floors impose costs on those going more floors, whether they are in the elevator or are calling for the elevator from a higher floor. Clearly, the optimal solution is to charge for elevator travel, with price determined by distance traveled [more floors, more energy use], how full the elevator is, and which floor or call buttons have already been pushed. Pay by credit card, as at a gas station. Just need somebody to write the pricing algorithm!

  35. ballyfager January 22, 2011 at 10:02 am Permalink

    Go stand in the corner with the guys who invented speed bumps and smoke alarms.

  36. Hasdrubal January 22, 2011 at 1:35 pm Permalink

    Are you sure this won’t backfire like posting calorie counts at fast food restaurants did?

    It seems like two types of people use the elevator for one floor: Those who feel ashamed about it and those don’t. Now, haranguing people will cause those who feel ashamed to feel even worse, but if they already feel ashamed and still use the elevator, they’ve probably got a good reason to and will keep using it, just feeling even worse. Those who don’t feel ashamed still won’t, it’s not like they didn’t know what they were doing in the first place, they’ll at best feel annoyed.

    So, will your net result be fewer one story elevator rides or simply more unhappy passengers?

    (And don’t forget the other joy of people who don’t pay attention and don’t press the button a second time. Will the elevator wait longer than it takes to get off at a floor before it decides it’s not going to get further input?)

  37. John Enright January 22, 2011 at 1:50 pm Permalink

    The stairs in my office building are only for emergency use. If I enter them, an alarm goes off. It’s too bad. I would be glad to go down 4 flights. I would even go up 4 flights on occasion.

  38. Jeffery January 22, 2011 at 3:33 pm Permalink

    Perhaps the answer is smarter elevators like the setup at the New York Times building. You enter you floor in the hallway prior to entering the elevator, and it instructs you use a certain elevator. The insides of the elevator have no buttons to press. Science FTW!

  39. Brene Brown January 22, 2011 at 4:38 pm Permalink

    As a person who is often in a hurry, I get it. As a shame and vulnerability researcher, I’d think twice. Shame isn’t a motivator of positive change. Yes, it can be used in the short term to change a behavior, but it’s like hitting a plastic thumbtack with a 100lb anvil – there are consequences to the crushing.

    Shame is highly correlated with violence, aggression, depression, addiction, bullying, and suicide – a pretty high cultural price to pay so you can save 1.5 minutes. Shame is much more likely to be the cause of destructive, hurtful, selfish behaviors than it is to be the solution.

    Shaming seems like a quick solution because it’s easy and it feels good – kinda like taking the elevator instead of walking.

  40. Brene Brown January 22, 2011 at 4:46 pm Permalink

    Another thought – not as a shame researcher but as someone who gets really frustrated on buses, trains and elevators. Maybe the answer is social marketing. They’re having a lot of success with social marketing public health campaigns on college campuses. Rather than “Just say No” or “Drinking Kills” – they use stats to normalize positive behavior (e.g, 80% of the students on our campus don’t use drugs).

    Maybe a sign outside the elevator that says, “Thoughtful riders . . . ”

    I was in NYC a few weeks ago and the guy sitting next to me on the subway could have benefited from a sign that read, “Good riders don’t clip their toenails on the subway.” SO gross.

  41. Sonja January 22, 2011 at 4:49 pm Permalink

    Dude, why are you waiting for an announcement? you can institute public shame instantly. when some able bodied person takes the elevator only one flight, I sigh loudly, roll my eyes, and sometimes even groan. If there is someone else on the elevator, when the person gets off, I’ll complain what a jerk the person was for only going one flight. (that is supposed to have the effect of indicating to my interlocutor that s/he should not try this some other time.) Finally, when I take the elevator only one flight, I apologize loudly to everyone else in the elevator, and give an excuse for why I am doing it. This is supposed to make them feel that they should be doing the same when they are in my situation.

    Obviously only do this in a building where you know that taking the stairs is an option. As many commentators noted, many office bdgs have locked their stairway doors for security.

  42. Sophie Germain January 22, 2011 at 4:51 pm Permalink

    I’d like to see an automated response next to the “publish” button on blogs that triggers this recording: “You are about to publish a blog that clearly establishes that you are a selfish jerk with little to no empathy. Please press the button again to confirm that you really are that egotistical and overly concerned with social changes that constitutes nothing but minutiae in the big picture of life.”

  43. Michm January 22, 2011 at 5:03 pm Permalink

    I think of this as one of life’s trivial challenges. If someone gets that worked up over an extra stop, they need to examine themselves because life is full of the inconvenience of living with other human beings. I say this as someone who works every day about halfway up a 51 story high rise, with too few elevators that run slowly for a building of this size. Of course we should try to avoid inconveniencing others, but we should also try to relax about the inconveniences of living with other human beings.

  44. Maria Popova January 22, 2011 at 5:55 pm Permalink

    What an interesting and polarized discussion, but I think much of it comes down to semantics. While I agree with Brene that “shame” in and of itself is a psychologically dreadful path, I think Samuel has simply made a poor semantic choice with the word but, at the core of his argument, he’s actually talking about quite the opposite – collaborative behavior. What he calls “public shame” is merely a placeholder for collaboration prompt. Though I, and a wealth of psych research, would like to suggest that negative reinforcement like shame and guilt isn’t nearly as effective as positive reinforcement – rather than “punishing” the person who doesn’t hold the door with “public shame,” rewarding the one who does with “public acclaim” or some other reward mechanism.

    In a sense, the core concept here – at least the way I’m reading it – is about employing some form of game mechanics to incite behavioral change towards pro-social actions. The focus, however, should be on moral reward, not moral punishment.

  45. Mihir Modi January 22, 2011 at 6:00 pm Permalink

    Not sure if it will work with everyone. Especially here in India where we find a strong ‘We are like that only’ attitude.

    Also, imagine an elderly lady being reminded every evening that she’s now too weak to climb stairs and would soon die of old age. Poor lady. I’d feel sad for her.

    Also, and more fundamentally, who gets to decide what is the right use of elevators? I strongly believe that using a resource to avoid a little convenience is as correct as using that very resource for more convenience.

    If I want to use the elevator just ‘coz I am plain lazy and I am asked to confirm I’d be all, “meh, here… take your confirmation!”

  46. astonerii January 23, 2011 at 12:47 am Permalink

    I think the better idea would be that jerks, like the person going to the 10th floor should feel shame for being so hateful for such a trivial matter. Instead you write it out on a blog for the whole world to see. Have you no shame? In fact, I think that shame has made you angry and instead of trying to find peace, your ego has forced you to do something stupid, like rail against people who use elevators for a flight or two.

  47. jane Mitchell January 23, 2011 at 9:30 am Permalink

    You get mad at someone pressing an elevator button? And judge them on the floors they are going to? Really? You need to look into stress reduction. Work on the time management skills to get those extra three minutes in your travel plans that you lose on an elevator! I’d hate to be in front of you at the supermarket check out line when I use cash.

  48. Mike Anderson January 23, 2011 at 1:36 pm Permalink

    I’ve seen a version of this tried at a local Army hospital, with bright signs prominently posted near the elevators. Difficult to take seriously, though, when no one could tell me where the stairway was.

    Sam, do us all a favor and take the stairs–instead of blogging.

  49. Koko January 23, 2011 at 4:54 pm Permalink

    While reading this blog, I found myself somewhat agreeing. Which is strange, as I am a 31 year-old, seemingly able-bodied woman, who suffers from arthritis in her knees, and often takes the elevator 2 floors in her apartment building. Thinking about it, I guess what I’m agreeing with is the idea that we so often see people acting selfishly. It’s not about taking the stairs instead of an elevator up one floor, but about all the small things we can do to make life easier for those we have to share common space with. When my knees are free of pain, I take the stairs (it’s faster anyway). When I run in to a friend on the street and stop to have a conversation, I move over to the side of the sidewalk so that others can easily pass by. When I am on a crowded train or bus and an elderly person/pregnant woman/disabled person gets on, I offer my seat. This last point is one that probably bothers me most. So many times I have seen people comfortably sitting in their seats, notice the pregnant woman and quickly bury their noses in their newspaper in order to avoid giving up their seat. When did we stop caring about our fellow humans?

    Back to the point. I don’t think public shaming is what we need. If this system were introduced, I would find it difficult to take the lift, even on days when I could barely walk. I think we need to have more empathy for others. And as others have said, positive reinforcement usually works better than negative. We love praise, us humans.

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