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. Emery January 23, 2011 at 9:05 pm Permalink

    There are three letters that can explain why this bad idea. ADA. Americans with Disabilities Act. That kind of feature would be offensive to people with no apparent disability.

  2. Cameron January 24, 2011 at 3:32 pm Permalink

    You sound remarkably like an ex-boyfriend I once had who would come home from work and complain to me about the jerk who’d cut him off in traffic… on his morning commute, ten hours before. Let it go and move on. “Holier-than-thou” bitterness is incredibly unattractive.

  3. alec resnick January 24, 2011 at 6:23 pm Permalink

    I only comment on this because you explicitly call it out as something other-than-scary. From Studs Terkel,

    “Without missing a beat, that voice above says, ‘Because of late entry, we’re delayed 30 seconds.’

    “People looked at that couple as if that couple had just committed mass murder,” Terkel said.

    The two cringed — and Terkel spoke up.

    “George Orwell, your time has come and gone!” he yelled out. The passengers greeted his attempt at humor with complete silence.

    “And now they look at me — and I’m with the couple, the three of us are at the Hill of Calvary on Good Friday,” Terkel said.

    “My God, where’s the human voice?” Terkel asked the passengers.

    If you can, I’d encourage you to listen to the excerpt. It’s more moving.

  4. alec resnick January 24, 2011 at 6:24 pm Permalink

    Sorry, accidentally hid that link in the blockquote cite–that excerpt is from an NPR piece.

  5. Miriam January 25, 2011 at 3:27 am Permalink

    Thanks everyone for a very interesting discussion. For the humorous remarks and the more serious ones :-)

    I’d like to raise some different points regarding “elevator ethics”:
    Just three days ago I was waiting for an elevator in a subway station (the last station). This subway station has escalators and stairs but also an elevator. Since it’s the last station – many people exit (everyone) and there is often a bit of a crowd before the elevator – sometimes all fit in – sometimes not.
    I was waiting, figuring out that I will probably not make it for the first “round” and next to me was a woman with a baby in a stroller (I’ll call her the “mom”). Obviously she cannot use the stairs and (even though many people do use escalators with some strollers) the signs do not permit using a stroller on the escalator. It was a kind of stroller that didn’t seem safe on the escalator.
    The people kept pushing through, not allowing her to enter. Remember – we were all just exiting from the same subway – none of us was waiting there in advance.
    I was a bit shocked, but thought, what the hell – she’ll wait for the elevator to return a second time (it’s a slow elevator). But when the elevator was almost full – she pushed the front of the stroller trying to get in. I thought – good for her – she shows the people that she’s the one that should have been in the elevator first. But nothing happened. She was stuck half way – people were trying to squeeze in but not enough. 3-4 people had to get out to allow her to go in. But nobody moved. About 10-20 seconds of waiting – the elevator won’t close because the stroller is half way in but the mom did not back off. I don’t remember who spoke first – someone in the elevator or the “mom”. The mom said “I have a stroller” (probably to encourage someone to leave and allow her to go in) and a woman inside the elevator said “so wait” and the mom replied angrily “You can walk!”. With that – she backed off.
    I was ashamed that I didn’t take sides or action while it was happening – I only told the mother later that I supported her and that I was shocked about their behavior and that she was right.
    Later, I thought that I should have just kept the button pressed – not allowing anyone to go up before the “mom” did. [by the way, do you think the fact that I’m pregnant was making me side with the young mom? I have a feeling those hormones were playing a role there too ;-) ].
    It was quite disturbing for me. The mom (or anyone with stroller) usually exists last from a subway, either because people push their way in front, or because she cannot always stand stable while holding the stroller. But, she was the only one who was really supposed to be using the elevator in the first place. I do remember, on more than one occasion, even people in wheelchairs not able to enter a subway because the door closed too quickly – and by the way – the doors are controlled manually by the subway operators – they check that everyone has entered. I also remember that I was waiting behind a person with wheelchair and they closed the doors so quickly that they almost forced me to push my way in front of the wheelchair. In a way, encouraging people to NOT give the right a way to the wheelchair.

    I was shocked she was not allowed in first and even more shocked at the passiveness of everyone (inside and outside the elevator). Yes, it was minor discomfort, but it showed where urban life is leading us: to ignore our environment and concentrate on achieving our personal goals. I must say it was more disturbing, sad and mostly horrifying to see how uncaring and passive people are – wearing those masks of “I don’t see, I don’t understand, I don’t notice, I don’t care, it’s non of MY business”. This is how great evils come to our world – how people stand action-less witnessing continuous abuse, violence even genocides. It is scary to witness how people allow themselves to be dead in order to survive in this urban jungle…

    By the way – I have not been offered a seat on the subway since I got pregnant (and I am less mobile and less fast or able to “run” to the free seat – I am also more careful not to hurt myself or my bump, so I move slower). I was offered a seat on a bench waiting for the subway – but the person was OVER kind – because the whole bench was free – he didn’t need to get up – there were other free spaces. Also had one person holding the door for me. So there were 2 kind people, but dozens of uncaring ones…

  6. denise January 25, 2011 at 10:55 pm Permalink

    I’ll admit to getting a chuckle out of how many people here responded accusing you of mental illness or needing therapy, as if these people aren’t instantly identifiable as the lazy one-floorers. The truth hurts, I suppose.

  7. Mr Pickles January 31, 2011 at 10:11 am Permalink

    oh for goodness sake! stop with all the positive reinforcement, understanding and tolerance of plain old fashioned lazy people. you want them to stop catching the elevator to level 2? push them out and say “get some exercise fatty”,,,

  8. Rose M. Welch February 4, 2011 at 4:27 am Permalink

    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!

    However, if you look like an able-bodied human being, but are in fact using the elevator for a perfectly valid physical reason, you will be forced to choose between your body’s needs and public shame/judgment. Great idea, Arbesman!

    Or not. My husband is a disabled veteran of the USMC and has a busted hip and ankle. To strangers, he looks perfectly healthy. Right now, in real life, he gets assholes glaring at him and making comments whenever he uses handicap accommodations, and even sometimes when he has his cane. I would hate to see how bad it would be if that sort of behavior was more acceptable.

  9. Ian February 4, 2011 at 7:15 am Permalink

    I’m another of those people with an “invisible” disability. I might look fine, but taking the stairs is not in the cards.

    I already have to deal with jerks silently (or not-so-silently) raging at me if I sit in the ‘disabled’ seating on the bus, or take the elevator up one flight of stairs. I really don’t need the elevator added to the list of people giving me a hard time over it.

    Here’s a better suggestion: When you see someone get on the elevator to ride it up one floor, assume they need to. Maybe a bit of personal shame over getting angry at someone who might be less able than you will help you quench that anger you’re feeling.


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