Do interpretive signs change behaviour?

The island where I live likes to put up signs. Our local parks are filled with orientational signs and markers—a lot of them—including some that are only marginally necessary. My favourite is a sign at the top of a trail, in front of the viewpoint. It says… “Viewpoint”.

We also have a lot of speed limit signs on the road (in a community where there is pretty much one speed limit everywhere). These are often ignored because we have virtually no police presence here. So when the community gets fed up with speeding, people respond with a flurry of complaints on the local Facebook page followed by ever more hand-scrawled “Slow Down!” “Kids live here!” signs every 100 metres on the road.

Do behavioural signs make a difference? It depends—largely on why people choose to engage in undesirable behaviour in the first place. Understanding the impact of behavioural signs—signs imploring people to not litter, stay on the trail, extinguish their fires, slow down, and so on—requires us to delve a little bit into the psychology of public behaviour. Let’s start with the easy questions.

Do they know the behaviour is undesirable?

If not, tell them so.

Suppose you have people wandering into an area where a species at risk is nesting, and suppose they have no idea of the fact. Simple, right? Just tell them. Place an easily-readable sign at the access point, and reason with them in clear and brief terms.

Take an interpretive approach. That is to say, try to foster understanding, appreciation, and connection through your writing and design. Make it thematic, organized, relevant, and enjoyable (to paraphrase Sam Ham.)

And guess what? This works… for a fairly large segment of the population. People generally want to do the right thing—particularly visitors who identify themselves as eco-tourists, cultural tourists, or people who align themselves with environmental causes. So that’s good, right? But it’s not everyone. Not by a long shot.


Not overly interpretive but people like me heeded this sign. Many, many footprints on the beach went past this point.

Here’s what research tells us

People are motivated first and foremost by their immediate desires: “I really, really want to walk through that area because there’s something on the other side I was planning on seeing or doing.” Or, “I really, really want to see my friends at a house party tonight even though I know it could spread COVID.” Simple, sad, but true.

The second strongest motivator for people’s behavioural choices in public is social pressure, AKA “Everyone else is doing it.” This is a greater motivator than doing what’s right or even doing what’s legal. People see your sign, look into your species at risk nesting area, and they see other people’s tracks there. That is generally all they need to justify walking forward. “I really want to go through there, and clearly everyone else is doing it, and I almost certainly won’t get caught, and if I do I almost certainly won’t get punished meaningfully… so here I go.”

People are not terribly motivated by the threat of punishment, unless there’s a good chance that they will get caught and punished. And seriously, you need to be honest with yourselves with this one: have you ever fined anyone for walking through areas like that? Do you even have staff who are available, empowered, and wiling to do that enforcement work? Because your public aren’t completely naive.

So should we stop posting behavioural signs?

Not necessarily. Knowing what we know about the psychology of public behaviour, here’s how you can create more effective signs.

Give them a realistic alternative

Knowing that people feel strongly motivated—one might say entitled—to act on their immediate desires, consider offering an easy alternative to the undesirable behaviour that still gets them what they want. In the case of the species at risk, it might involve illustrating your sign with a map that shows an alternate trail to the same place. Or, it might involve actually building a low-impact boardwalk to allow both parties, the walkers and the site managers, to get a win-win out of the situation.

Unpopular opinion: try enforcing your regulations

I had a fairly strong-willed manager once who said, “I really want people’s commitment, but I’ll settle for compliance.” In that manager’s case, settling for compliance meant posting a park ranger in the area from time to time who was empowered to write tickets (although they rarely resorted to that—the embarrassment of the firm talking-to was generally enough.)

The problem with enforcement is that it’s expensive and unpleasant for all parties, and many managers don’t like the potential court appearances and bad publicity that might result from it. Risk-averse managers are the ones who keep telling you to “Put up more signs!” in the first place.

(Here’s a tip: if you want to have more effective enforcement signage, illustrate your sign with a person looking straight at the visitor. There’s a fair bit of evidence that this will subtly influence the reader’s decision-making process: “Doh! There’s somebody watching!”, the subconscious brain says.)

Use social marketing techniques

Social marketing (not to be confused with social media, which is a kind of sub-set of social marketing) is an approach to communications based on the idea that people are more likely to invest in a behaviour if people they know and trust—people just like them—are already doing so.

Let’s go back to the ecotourist, the cultural traveller, the engaged environmentalist visitor. From a social marketing perspective, they may read your sign describing the species at risk, and they might identify with your language and your imagery and your agency’s brand, and they conclude, “Okay. People like me don’t wander through sensitive nesting areas. People like me know better. I’ll just walk around the area. No problem.”

But this is the age of identity politics. For every ten people who identify with your agency, your cause, and your message, there may be one or two who roll their eyes and discount everything you have to say—because people like you are lying, or privileged, or have a secret controlling agenda, or are wasting their tax dollars, or are taking away their freedom.

In our society, to ask someone to change their mind is to ask them to leave their social group.

Effective behavioural messaging, then, may have to come from within your target audience’s identity group. They must see and believe that others just like them are practicing the desirable behaviour. And that can be a tough sign to make. What does it look like?

The message may have to come from another agency or identity group—it may be in the voice of, say, an association of off-road vehicle drivers: people just like them who choose to practice their sport responsibly and sustainably.

It may contain imagery and language that sounds less like you and more like them.

And, most importantly, that sign may be followed up with a public relations and outreach campaign that involves real people from the target identity group appealing to the visitors on their terms.

Writing and designing that sign, without coming across as patronizing, might take some research. It will probably take some relationship-building with people from your target market. It might even involve starting to hire people from that social group.

(I once met an interpreter who said to me, “I smoke. I hunt. I drive a truck. I live on a farm. I never thought I could be an interpreter.” He was the best interpreter that park had in a long time.)

Writing truly effective behavioural signs is a complicated process—one that might require you and your agency to take a deep breath, get off the high horse, and step out of your comfort zone, which might be your greatest win-win of all.

The above article is a segment of a new course that I am offering in May, 2021: Interpretive Signs—Attractive, Brief, Clear.

Get monthly (ish) updates via email from Don Enright. I write about interpretation and visitor experience. I never sell or share my lists.

Read More

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Social Marketing to Protect the Environment: What Works 


  1. Where is that wonderful sign pictured as the header from? What is the story behind “No Tipping” and it’s relation to the snail?? Very interested!

    • Bailey- that photo was from the Shetland Islands off Scotland. In British English, “Tipping” is what we in North America might call dumping, as in garbage. Why the snail? No idea.

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