The following post is a part of a series that discusses 'mind and culture,' the theme of the World Bank’s upcoming World Development Report 2015 .
When the former Mayor of Bogota, Antanas Mockus, began his first term in office, a major quality of life problem in the city was the awful traffic, aggravated by reckless driving and mass disobedience of traffic rules. The situation increased air pollution, reduced labor productivity, and created a sense that the city was dysfunctional. The traffic police were at the time notoriously corrupt: drivers had merely to bribe the police to avoid more substantial penalties for traffic violations. Mockus fired all the traffic police and in their place hired approximately 400 mimes. The mimes were trained to mock people’s traffic violations and to demonstrate better behavior. The mime demonstrations succeeded - traffic improved greatly and traffic fatalities declined 50% in the center city where the mimes operated. Traffic police were later reinstated after retraining, but already traffic flowed more smoothly. (See here )
Why did mimes succeed where traffic rules and traffic police had failed? At the core of the new work in the behavioral sciences is that people are not purely self-interested . Most people are conditional cooperators. They want to comply with broadly beneficial rules if others do so, too. And they do not want to comply if they believe others do not. Adding a mere sentence in letters sent by the UK tax authorities telling recipients that a majority of people in their community had paid their taxes bolstered tax collections by £30 million that would otherwise have had to be pursued in the courts at substantial cost and delay.
The finding that most people are conditional cooperators has a simple implication for Bogota’s traffic problem. It implies that there are two possible outcomes at which society can settle down. In one outcome, people believe that others generally obey the traffic rules, and so they are willing to comply, too, even when they are in a rush to get somewhere. In another outcome, people believe that most others do not obey the traffic rules, and so they will violate them too whenever they think that it is individually beneficial.
What the mimes were able to do was help people coordinate their behavior on compliance with the traffic rules. The mimes provided a social reminder that violating traffic law is bad for everyone. They changed expectations and activated norms of cooperation. The mocking was able to shame people into doing the right thing. Not only this, but by using something ridiculous like mimes, the new approach got people thinking and talking to each other about the mimes and the traffic violations that the mimes were trying to deter. This made it easier for people to coordinate on compliance with traffic rules and provided extra social pressure for the minority of individuals who are purely selfish. It also helped that mimes have long had a cultural role in Bogota. People in Bogata are accustomed to mimes gently mocking people for bad behavior.
Though adopting a “mimes intervention” can’t work everywhere, the idea has spread to other places. Venezuela and Honduras have adopted mimes for traffic improvement (see here  and here ). Paris has deployed several dozen mimes to discourage raucousness by late-night drinkers in outdoor cafes. There had been a large increase in complaints about noise and demands that late-night establishments be shut down. Rather than close them down, the city is trying to prod people into self-regulation (see http://www.lespierrotsdelanuit.org ).
In all of these cases—Bogota, Venzuala, Honduras, and Paris— mimes have been deployed to get people to do what they already know they should do. Everyone knows that they are supposed to follow traffic laws, and everyone knows that raucous noise in the wee hours of the night is a public nuisance. Mimes merely remind people of this, make the bad behavior salient, and reframe the behavior from innocent expressions of exhuberance to reckless harm to others. Antanas Mockus, the mayor who started all this, described the process as “making the familiar unfamiliar.”
For public nuisances more generally, we can think about interventions that get us to reframe our behavior and question our choices, activate norms of cooperation, and create social pressure. Using mimes to tell us to mind our manners is a colorful example of the behavioral approach to increasing voluntary compliance with rules.