Can buttons make people nicer?

People ride a crowded subway train in New York City.
Credit: JOEL CARILLET/Getty Images

New York City’s Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) is trying to make the subway a friendlier place.

The MTA introduced a program over the weekend that allows pregnant women or riders with disabilities to indicate that they would like a seat on the train without saying a word.

Riders can now request a free button online, choosing between “Baby on board!” or “Courtesy counts” to signal to other riders that they should offer up their seats. The program presupposes that other riders, upon seeing these buttons, will give up their seats.

MTA NYC Subway Buttons
Credit: Courtesy of MTA

There is already “priority seating” on the train which, under the MTA Rules of Conduct, “no person shall refuse or fail to relinquish a seat on a conveyance which has been designated as ‘priority seating’” when someone with a disability comes on board. The buttons are meant to extend this courtesy to the rest of the train car.

So what’s stopping someone from taking advantage of the system? Apparently nothing. According to the MTA, the rules of the buttons are “self-enforced and based on the honor system; accordingly we ask our customers not to abuse the system.”

But to those cynical riders who believe that people will just use the buttons to scam their way into a seat: Psychologists have said that it is “extremely difficult, even traumatic” to ask for a seat on the subway. Most empathetic people will not ask for a seat unless absolutely necessary.

However that doesn’t mean that other riders will respect that request.

London introduced a similar program in 2005 and now hands out about 130,000 buttons every year. However, riders who wear the buttons report that they are sometimes ignored and still forced to stand. One woman said that a fellow rider asked her to prove that she was pregnant after she sat down.

Generally etiquette on subways is the same all around the world — offer up seating for those who need it and otherwise riders should keep to themselves. There’s no eating, drinking or making loud noises and passengers should let subway riders leave the train (and get out of the way of the doors) before they get on themselves — except in Japan where passengers should wait in line to board train cars.