When visiting La Paz, Bolivia for the first time, you'll be struck by a few things. The first is the altitude: at 12,000 feet above sea level, La Paz can come as a shock to a set of uninitiated lungs.

The second thing you'll notice is the zebras in the middle of the road. No, you're not hallucinating from lack of oxygen. The zebra traffic cops are real, at least in the sense of being real humans dressed in zebra costumes.

After you catch your breath and study the scene more closely, you'll see that these are some highly-skilled zebras. They point, they dance, they make comical little zebra gestures at motorists and pedestrians alike.

"Pero ... por que?" you might ask. Why have the municipal authorities in La Paz allowed a group of striped equine impersonators to treat the city's roads like their own patch of savannah?

Taming the Wild Streets

The zebras, or cebritas as they're known, are there to bring some order to the traffic-clogged streets. It's a fanciful response to a serious problem.

Latin America has the highest rate of road fatalities in the world. Traffic accidents there are the leading cause of death for people aged 15 to 44. In much of the region, road conditions are poor and traffic laws are ignored.

La Paz's cebritas are meant to keep everyone moving in a safe and orderly fashion, and remarkably, they do exactly that. In fact, they do so more effectively than traffic cops who can issue tickets. Cebritas get drivers to follow the rules using humor, showmanship, even teasing.

Derren Patterson, an American who owns a tour agency in La Paz, explained to The Atlantic how in contrast to to police who direct traffic by "whistling at you, yelling at you, pulling you over, [or] giving you a ticket," the cebritas have a different method. "If a car stops in the crosswalk, they will lay across his hood."

The cebritas were inspired by earlier campaign in Bogota, Colombia that used mimes to silently shame drivers for breaking traffic laws. Whimsical as that sounds, the results were no laughing matter: Bogota's traffic fatalities fell by 50% during the tenure of the mayor who implemented the program.

Playfulness Over Punishment

Humans respond to incentives of all stripes. It turns out that in some context, the desire to avoid embarrassment is as powerful a motivator as the desire to avoid punishment. Creative interventions such as cebritas change prevailing social norms simply by calling attention to rule breaking.

Highlighting examples of good behavior can have a similarly powerful effect.

In the context of the workplace, sales leaderboards and "Employee of the Month" programs are meant to recognize top performers and encourage excellence throughout an organization. Gamified enterprise platforms incorporate positive reinforcement to make routine processes more engaging, fun, and in theory, productive. Innovative incentive structures, such as those that motivate employees to spend less on their business trips, are another example of positive engagement.

Employees aren't cattle. (Or, for that matter, zebras: La Paz's program is run by volunteers, not city employees). On-the-job satisfaction depends in large part on someone's sense of independence, autonomy, and happiness. So remember that in the office as on the streets, positive reinforcement can be more effective than punishment.

Published on: Feb 16, 2017
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