As I get older, I realise that I am developing a number of peeves. I can’t stand it when people swear in public (especially if they’re under 20 years old). It irks me when people double park behind me. And I get really upset when people don’t clear up after themselves in food courts.

You know what I mean? When you’re waiting for a family to finish their meal, and they finally get up and go – and they leave all their dirty plates and cups behind. I’m not talking about leaving them in a neat pile in a corner. I’m talking about spilt tomato-sauce-covered chips that have been mushed by a heavy bowl of untouched soup.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be so harsh. Perhaps they thought I was in a rush, so they left quickly. Perhaps they felt it was important the local cafeteria worker do something to earn his or her keep.

Perhaps they were being sensible economists. They were minimising effort to maximise value, where value is measured in free time to do other things instead of precariously piling dishes high.

But there seems something inherently selfish about saying, “I made this mess, it’s now somebody else’s problem”.

The strange thing is, if you ask people if it is better to clean up after yourself or to make people after you do so, I think we know what the obvious answer is.

So I then started thinking, how do we persuade people to do what’s right?

Now, this is not the first time this question has crossed my mind. Part of the reason why I find Dan Arielly’s The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty (HarperCollins, 2012) so compelling is that it tries to explain under what circumstances people cheat. That is, when do people do the wrong thing even when they clearly know otherwise.

People cheat all the time, it seems. Everything from golfers dishonestly reporting their scores to dentists asserting that you need expensive cosmetic surgery. The most interesting thing is that people are very adept at justifying their actions after the fact. Yes, they might admit they cheated but it’s no big deal. I mean, so what? It’s just a couple of plates and a tray.

So it’s important to be preemptive in addressing this problem. Probably the first thing to do is to just remind people about the right thing to do. The restaurant does this with signs on the walls asking people to put their plates and trays away. But let’s go one step further.

Clean up after yourself.

There was an experiment which showed, if you give people taking a test opportunities to cheat, that’s exactly what some of them would do. But if you first make them sign a statement saying “I promise not to cheat”, then the number who did so decreased.

So perhaps something to sign before you purchase your food? Like, “I promise to clean up after myself.” Sounds too preachy? Go one step further: “Make this pledge, save a ringgit.”

The next is to remember that the example you set has an effect on others.

For example, if you hold the door open for somebody as you are walking through a doorway, that person is more likely to hold the door for the person behind him or her.

The reverse has also been seen. A study where a student is seen cheating in a test (he was a plant and part of the experiment) encouraged others in the same class to cheat as well.

So I guess the message is “be the example you want to see”. You can’t really expect others to clear up their mess if you don’t do it yourself.

A third thing to do is to welcome those who behave correctly and – I hate to say this – ostracise those who behave badly. Now, I don’t like saying this because I believe drawing lines and boundaries gets in the way of mutual benefit.

But, psychologically speaking, it is useful to make people part of a group because they are more likely to follow the norms of the group. And to label those who behave differently “others”, people with whom we do not associate.

This was demonstrated in an extension of the cheating experiment mentioned above. They had somebody cheat in front of the class, but this time the cheater wore the sweatshirt of a rival college. Because the cheater was seen as an “other” – a “them” rather than an “us” – it actually reduced cheating within the group.

Now some of these examples can’t help but remind me of what politicians try to do. They certainly tell us what we should do, and they certainly point out how those in “the other” parties don’t do these things. But they’re perhaps a bit lacking when it comes to practising their preaching.

Sure, there are some good examples, like Khairy Jamaluddin (currently Youth and Sports Minister) sending his son to a government school. But every time we hear a minister tell us we should do more with less money – well, I don’t know about you, but I can’t help but think, “Seriously?”

Perhaps we should make more of our public officials take an oath before making promises. And demonstrate to them that we, the public, can be better than some of them. But with that we must shed our cynicism towards politicians.

The pressures of the job (showing one face to the public, another within their own party) creates cognitive dissonance – the phenomenon of how people cope having opposing attitudes or behaviours simultaneously. However, we must remember it is not a product of people being evil, but of people being human.

Like I said, people should own the mess they create and clean up after themselves (or perhaps better still, take more care not to make a mess in the first place). Our job, as I see it, is to remind them what the right thing to do is and to set good examples ourselves.


Logic is the antithesis of emotion but mathematician-turned-scriptwriter Dzof Azmi’s theory is that people need both to make sense of life’s vagaries and contradictions.