Dear Wombat and Dingbat,
Our block is quite orderly and well-trimmed BUT there is one household that never mows their lawn. Well, maybe twice a summer. Car parked on lawn. Unsightly. And no one ever sees the inhabitants. Well, maybe very occasionally. Someone in my household has suggested making a sign, and planting it the problem yard in the middle of the night, that says “Free Dandelions! U-Pick.” Do you think this would be helpful?
–A Neat Street
So, as I understand it, the behavior that you want to change is that you would like your neighbors to mow their lawn more often, so that you don’t have to look at a messy lawn—and so you don’t have dandelion seeds blowing on to your tidy lawn.
I kind of like dandelions. They are cheerful. Like me. But not, as it turns out, particularly tasty.
You ate a dandelion?
Salad. But not really. Too bitter. Grass is better.
Apparently, Neat shares that opinion. At least as far as something to look at, if not something to eat. So, the question is, would putting a sign up about the free dandelions change the situation? Hard to say. Basically, it would be a form of shaming, which can be a very effective form of punishment. For instance, there are now all kinds of Facebook memes about the white lady who called the cops on black people who were having a barbecue. You can bet she won’t try that again.
But here’s the important thing about punishment. It decreases behavior. That’s the definition of punishment. Which means that you can pretty effectively shame people into stopping doing something, but it’s hard to shame someone into doing a thing.
So if I wanted The Human to give us more snacks, it wouldn’t work to say here in public that she starves us poor, innocent dogs?
Well, maybe if our readers got on the bandwagon and publicly talked about how sad they were that philosopher dogs were going hungry, and how The Human didn’t deserve to have such amazing dogs. But I suspect it’s more likely that The Human would cut off our access to the computer. It is important to remember that punishment tends to have fallout that you can’t necessarily predict.
Also, people might look at our pictures and think that we didn’t maybe look like we were starving.
Are you trying to say something about my figure?
Nope. Nopity, nopity, nope. Not a chance.
Then we’ll get back to Neat’s dilemma. Could the neighbors shame the people with the messy lawn into getting with the neat street program? Possible, but that would require the punishment to push them into doing something, rather that stopping doing something, so I kind of doubt it would work. It’s more likely that they would be hurt and angry and do something to return their hurt and anger back on the neighborhood.
So then what should the neighbors do?
Well, one possibility is that Neat could talk to the people in the messy house and say that they know it’s hard to keep on top of these things, but they’d really love to not have dandelions blowing over, and would it be OK if they came over once in a while and mowed the lawn?
But why should Neat have to mow someone else’s lawn? Isn’t everyone supposed to take care of their own lawn?
Yeah, but think about it. Who is bothered by the dandelions? Who wants the situation to change? Maybe the messy neighbors like dandelions. Maybe they don’t have a lawnmower. Maybe they just have too many other things going on and the lawn never gets to the top of their list. Apparently other people care more about the lawn than they do, so maybe the people who feel it’s a problem should be in charge of fixing it.
The other day I saw The Human mowing the weeds by the street in front of the neighbor’s house. I don’t think she asked first.
That’s another choice. She didn’t change the neighbor’s behavior, but she changed the weeds.
If someone came and mowed our lawn I would bark at them.
Because you’d be mad?
No, because I like to bark at people on the lawn. Also at cats on the lawn. And birds. It’s very exciting.
I wonder if I could shame you enough about your barking to get you to stop.