Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills @thomhills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The Bristol Zoo parking attendant

The Bristol Zoo Parking Attendant 

If you are from Bristol or have any friends or family, you will have probably heard about the Bristol Zoo attendant and his cunning scheme to make money, through exploiting the norms of the people around, and obedience to authority. 

Whether this is a true story or not is debatable, however, many people still talk about it, and it got me thinking about how this could be done anywhere and be successful.

Bristol Zoo is one of many attractions in Bristol, homing animals of many species and sizes, from Jock the silverback to small insects and bugs. A lovely day out for anyone! There is a car park right outside of the Zoo which gets filled promptly, or an overflow carpark in peak times which is situated on 'The Downs', a large greenery area of land sitting in the middle of the City (right next to the Zoo). 

Story has it, that a very clever man in his 50's put on a uniform resembling a parking attendant, got himself some equipment that enabled him to print tickets on the spot and walked around the car park, collecting money from visitors and accrediting them a ticket in return. You can imagine just how much this man would have received in a day, charging a few pounds per day for hundreds of cars coming and going. 

Until one day.. He wasn't there, anxious visitors asking workers at the Zoo, where to pay for a ticket so they wouldn't get a fine. They had no idea of course, where their ticket man had gone and why he had not showed up for work! So the workers at Bristol Zoo rang up Bristol City Council and enquired into why their worker (employed by the council) hadn't showed up, or why they hadn't sent a replacement. They replied that they do not organise the workers for the carpark at the Zoo and had no records of anyone working for them. 

Reality struck when they had realised that a stranger had (for about 10 years) been manipulating the system and collecting money for himself. Now he had disappeared and no record of him anyway, he would probably be as far away from the Zoo as possible, with an enormous wad of cash!

The aspects of this tale that strike me the most is obedience to authority. Every single person who parked in that car park gave this man money because he had simply placed a uniform on that resembled an authority figure. He looked right, had the appropriate equipment and a name badge. Why would anyone question his authority? 
In addition, the social norms people have about obedience to authority, and having to pay for parking meant that everyone followed the crowd in a way. After parking in a space, most drivers probably looked around and saw a man who was approached by other likeminded people, taking their money and given a ticket in response. If anyone questioned what the appropriate behaviour was, they would look for social proof and engage in the behaviours of other people around them. Moreover, visitors are probably preoccupied with the fear of getting a parking ticket, or the stress of controlling their excited children, that contributes to the success this man had. 

Zimbardo (1973) conducted a very famous Standford prison experiment that demonstrated the power of obedience to authority. By assigning two groups of people randomly to the position of a guard or prisoner, and by having the prison officers wear uniform, this created a sense of power between the two groups, and prisoners as a result of social norms would comply with their requests, (similar to visitors to Bristol zoo, complying with rules and abiding with the social norms.)
Other experiments have demonstrated that the power of uniform can affect peoples decisions. Bickman (1971) found people were more likely to comply with individuals who were in a uniform, and the type of uniform also influenced how people conformed. 
In the case of the Bristol Zoo attendant, the uniform he was dressed in created a sense of authority and people would naturally comply accordingly. 


  • Bickman, L. (1971). The effect of different uniforms on obedience in field situations. In Proceedings of the Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association. American Psychological Association.
  • Haney, C., Banks, W. C., & Zimbardo, P. G. (1973). A study of prisoners and guards in a simulated prison. Naval Research Reviews9(1-17).

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