Negatively framed messages are more effective than positively framed messages on signs that seek to persuade people to keep a hiking trail – and probably in other places too!
The research reported in this article tested the effectiveness of four differently phrased ‘Please keep to the path’ type signs. This research easily pre-dates this site and if we had happened upon it earlier may have influenced our name and you might currently be reading at Please don’t leave the path.
This study, which builds on the notable work of Robert Cialdini (we’ll cover some of this in future bytes), tested the effectiveness of the following messages, listed here in the order of most effective:
- “Please don’t go off the established paths and trails, in order to protect the Sequoias and natural vegetation in this park.”
- “The vast majority of past visitors have stayed on the established paths and trails, helping to preserve the natural state of the Sequoias and vegetation in this park.”
- “Please stay on the established paths and trails, in order to protect the Sequoias and natural vegetation in this park.”
- “Many past visitors have gone off the established paths and trails, changing the natural state of the Sequoias and vegetation in this park.”
The key points of this empirical demonstration are that:
- Social norms can influence behavior, even when generated through a written message on a sign.
- Emphasising the undesirable behavior (i.e. that many past visitors have gone off the path) is less effective than emphasising the good behavior (that the vast majority of past visitors keep to the path).
- A negatively framed message (i.e. which describes the behavior that should not be done) is more effective, at least in this context, than a positive framed message that describes the preferred behavior. The positively framed sign (number 1) was disobeyed more than three times as much the request to stay on the path (number 3).
Perhaps the broader take-home message here is that the words you use to say things matter, including (perhaps especially) for signs intended to promote conservation behaviors. This means that careful thought and real-world testing (wherever possible) should inform your sign design.
Edit 24/8/18: I’d like to point out that the increased effectiveness of the negatively-framed messages here are in the context of behavioural prompts, and should not necessarily be interpreted to mean that messages which emphasise a negative state of biodiversity conservation are likely to be more effective – this is a complex space that I will try and explore in future bytes.