Certainty Behaviour



Back in 2010, Southern, the railway operator serving the South East of England, came up with an unusual explanation for their unpunctual service. They claimed the “wrong kind of leaves” had landed on the rail tracks, and that they had landed too fast overnight, adversely affecting the surface of the tracks and compromising safety, leading to delays.

In her brilliant book, 'Watching the English', Kate Fox describes this very British story and how it has led to the ongoing joke “the wrong kind of…”, like the “the wrong kind of snow”, “the wrong kind of sunshine”, “the wrong kind of cows”, and so on.

Apparently it’s an actual thing though, the wrong kind of leaves, causing not only significant delays but also damage to tracks and train wheels. Companies operate to 'leaf fall timetables', revised schedules, when the situation is bad.

Northern Rail, a train company providing services from the North West to the North East of England, devised a colour-coded 'Leaf Fall Risk' system to notify passengers on social media of what kind of leaves had fallen overnight and if they were likely to cause delays. Jokes aside, it is a fairly useful system for passengers, who could at least decide if they wanted to take an earlier service to get to their destination on time.

It’s another example of systems people use to add certainty to their day. If you are still to be convinced about the human desire for certainty, ask yourself have you done any of the following:

  • • Watched weather forecasts, or have weather apps on your phone.

    • Read a horoscope – in the hope it would say something positive.

    • Have road traffic alerts on your car radio.

    • Carried out a weird ritual, based on a superstition, like touching wood or throwing salt over your shoulder.

    • Paid too much attention to election polls.

    • Listen to pundits speculate on the outcomes of sports matches.

    • Written a letter to Santa, and then behaved through all of December – just in case.

    • Read published reviews of products before buying, for example on Amazon, What Car or Which magazine.

    • Asked friends for a recommendation, such as for a restaurant, or a washing machine repair company, or a good nursery school.

    • Run to the boarding gate for an Easyjet or Ryanair flight so you get to sit next to the person you are travelling with, without having to fork out for priority boarding (before it all changed, and changed again).

    • Been attracted to products or services because of their guarantees and warranties.

    • Bought shares in a company based on their financial forecast.

Seems we all just want to know what we’re going to get.