Monday, January 18, 2010

The False Tap

My scanner is back home again, it's working nicely and I've already started scanning the film I took during our trip to Hokkaido in December. The posts will have to wait a while longer, though, as I don't have all that much time to spend on image editing right now.

However, I thought I'd show you this neat cognitive hack we found at our hotel in Sapporo:

Tap - Above

The bathroom sink, with a normal tap and faucet handle to the left, and a slender tap marked "Drinking Water" to the right.

Tap - Below

Here's the same sink from below. The water pipe enters from the upper right, splits, and goes to the "Drinking Water" tap on the left and to the faucet handle in the center, where it continues to the tap itself on the right.

The "Drinking Water" tap and the normal tap right next to it give you the exact same water, in other words. Fraud? Deception? No, not at all. Just a neat psychological trick to make their customers more comfortable.

Tap-water in Japan (as in Sweden and some other countries) is not only safe to drink, but often quite good. If you live here you never need think twice about drinking water directly from a tap. In many countries, however, even wealthy and highly developed ones, tapwater is unsafe, or if safe then not very palatable due to high mineral levels, chlorine or other reasons. If you live in such a place you either drink bottled water or you have a water filter with its own tap1. And so the hotel receives plenty of guests that do not consider tap-water to be drinkable.

The hotel could put up signs of course, telling their guests that the water is safe and good. And indeed, I've seen such signs in many hotels. The problem is, we humans are lousy at heeding signs and directions2, and a lifelong habit prevents many of these guests from trusting the tap water, sign or no sign.

Another option would be to provide each room with bottled water. And they do that already, for a fee, in the hotel bar and in vending machines. But most people aren't very happy with having to pay for plain water when they're thirsty or need to take some medication. It smacks of greed, like having to pay extra for towels. Supplying free water bottles would add another ongoing expense, and create a small mountain of empty bottles - an environmental PR headache as well as increasing garbage disposal costs.

Instead, they add this tap. Mind you, it is completely accurate and on the level - it really is good, clean, tasty drinking water. It's in fact likely to be the exact same water as the local bottled water. The tap doesn't change the water; all it does is package the water to make it palatable for its guests. And really, that's all bottled water does too, just at added cost and with environmental and disposal headaches.

And I bet this really works. Our low-level emotions - such as disgust, which deals with what is safe to eat, drink and touch - aren't very analytical. They tend to work on concrete and immediate things, not abstract or long-term ones. Many people from places with bad water won't drink tap water even when they know it's safe and good. Their low-level emotions have learned that "tap = bad" and their sense of disgust will kick in whether they want it to or not.

But this tap looks and feels different - and it's just the kind of tap you'd have from a water filter. Even though the guests may well realize it's just tap water, their low-level disgust never reacts since it doesn't look like the kind of tap that is dangerous. And it really needs to look and feel different; the more different the better. Had they added a second, normal tap with a sign it wouldn't have worked at all, even if that tap had been connected to an actual water filter.

It's all about fooling your low-level emotions. They have a huge influence on our behavior and they don't do subtlety, foresight or abstractions very well. We spend a fair amount of our high-level mental resources subverting, co-opting and otherwise manipulating our own low-level systems in order to make ourselves do what we want.

When you put away the cake or the bowl of snacks just so you'll stop eating; when you turn away and bite your lip to distract yourself and lessen the fear of an injection; when you bring a lucky charm or other "safe", familiar object to an anxiety-inducing test or interview; when you deliberately buy groceries when full so you won't impulse buy, you're engaged in a battle or wits with your own low-level emotions.

These low-level emotional systems are really fascinating; I used to work in that area and sometimes wish that I'd continued doing so. I may return to that field someday.

#1 Or you're poor and have no choice but to drink bad water. Or you don't have ready access to water at all. Which is an outrage, but off-topic to this particular post.

#2 When was the last time you bothered to actually read the instructions for a gadget? Especially for a simple one, like a tap, that you already think you know all you need to use.


  1. I have never seen such separated taps. Which hotel did you take this picture? that Rusutzu hotel?

  2. Nope, Sapporo Grand Hotel. The tap is not that uncommon; we have a similar one at home for instance. Ours really is connected to a water filter though (it gets rid of the faint chlorine aftertaste).


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