Giving the Subway a Punch of Emotional Intelligence



Thanks to the work of Nobel laureate Dr. Daniel Kahneman, we know that the human brain’s default order of operations is to first react emotionally and then to interpret rationally. There’s no escaping human emotion, but you can adjust your syntax and tone to accommodate for the emotional reaction most likely to generate the optimal outcome.

Persado’s methodology may seem unusual to the uninitiated: we use artificial intelligence to increase the emotional intelligence of any message to inspire action.

Our AI has been training for years, fueling up on thousands of digital marketing campaigns and billions of datapoints on how consumers respond to emotional language and other triggers. This smart machine has made us and our customers a great deal smarter about motivating people to do something. As New York City commuters, told countless times to “stand clear of the closing doors, please,” we thought we might apply some of these insights to improve MTA subway announcements.

After all, New York City’s subway system is an emotionally charged setting. People are frantic, stressed out, impatient, uncomfortable, and struggling to not breathe through their noses around that guy.

Using emotional language in an intelligent, informed way has the potential to make a difference in rider experience, as well as that of others, while reducing risk and disruption.

Emotionally Intelligent Subway Announcements


Why’d we make these changes?

In imperative asks, front-loading a polite element softens the demand and typically gets a better response.

“Stand clear” is a more technically worded verb phrase, but asking passengers to “be careful” has an emotional charge that connects the action to one’s immediate well-being.


Why’d we make these changes?

In this case, the announcement is already charged with emotion, so our goal was to make the most of the language, which meant cutting inessential details to emphasize the core message.

In our experiments, we’ve found “Reminder” to be an effective, attention-grabbing introduction that complements the idea of “safety,” an emotion obviously emphasized here.


Why’d we make these changes?

Front-loading “thank you” has been shown to be extremely effective. In this case, it works well paired with the formal greeting.

Given the nature of this message, we added a positive element at the end to convey a greater sense of assurance in the face of frustration.


Why’d we make these changes?

The core message already uses polite language in an effective way to enhance its call to action.

The core message is unchanged, but we restructured it into a more persuasive sequence: attention-grabbing intro followed by a call to action followed by the informational component.

Referring to the train as “your” instead of using an article adds a sense of personal appeal.


Why’d we make these changes?

We added an intimate salutation to address passengers directly and implore them to take action: to look around. Wording it as a question makes the message more direct.

This call to action conveys a greater sense of guilt because the gesture is so immediate and easy—forcing strangers to make eye contact—and because it’s worded as a question, which works well as a means to encourage courteousness.

Whereas “Courtesy is contagious” may sound catchy and alliterative, it’s ultimately too conceptual and not directly emotional enough. As a concept, “contagiousness” is also an unfortunate metaphor to use in a situation where strangers are crammed into a closed space together. We opted for a more direct and simple expression of gratitude.


Wait, but why didn’t we make any changes?

Because this message is pretty perfect as it is. Kudos to the MTA!