Given the choice how many people take the stairs

Sometimes just knowing something can change your behaviour. A month or so ago I was reading Daniel Lieberman’s book The Story of the Human Body and a trivial fact grabbed my attention. He said that “Less than 3 percent of shoppers in an American mall voluntarily take the stairs when an escalator is available to make their journey easier (the percentage doubles with signs that encourage stair use). Ever since when I see stair and escalators next to each other I remember the 3% and more often than not I take the stairs. Slowly I found that it became automatic, the habit built up and extended to taking the stairs rather than the elevator. But I also saw that when I was tired or distracted, it was very easy to slip back without thinking and take the escalators.

Lieberman explained the preference for taking the escalator is the result of our brains. Food energy was hard to obtain for hunter-gathers in the natural world. So it makes sense for our brains to try to conserve energy. So our subconscious steers us to the escalator, and we habitually make this choice. The problem is that modern life has provided more or less unlimited food and reduced the physical work we have to do to get it. Now we need to take a little more exercise, but our subconscious habits are still trying to save energy.

A couple of weeks ago I was chatting with some friends at work, and I thought I would share the “3% take the stairs” as a surprising piece of trivia. To give it a bit more impact I challenged them to guess what percentage of people will take the stairs or escalators. Being smart people they knew, the number would be small. One person offered 10% and the other 15%. With a little bit of relief that they had not guessed correctly, I revealed that it was 3%. Both were surprised it was so low. Various explanations were discussed. Perhaps it was because people were choosing between long flights of stairs or a much easier escalator. I did not know the background to the 3% figure so after agreeing that very few people used the stairs we moved onto talking about something else.

About a week later we were talking again.  I took the chance to update them on the previous week’s trivia fact and say that I had checked the reference and the choice had been between stairs and escalators in a shopping mall, not the long flights of stairs found in the underground. What happened next surprised me. Both of my friends said that they had not stopped talking about the 3%, and they were both now making a conscious effort to be part of the 3%. Perhaps just knowing something can result in change.