USDA Forest Service

Pacific Southwest Research Station
Pacific Southwest
Research Station

800 Buchanan Street
Albany, CA 94710-0011
(510) 883-8830
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Research Topics

Recreation: Communication

^ Main Topic | Changing Recreation Patterns | Communication | Social Aspects of Fire | Behaviors and Conflict

Using Normative Messages to Reduce Off-Trail Hiking

Pat Winter (PSW) recently completed a study that examined the effectiveness of normative messages in reducing off-trail use. The study was based on the focus theory of normative conduct, which states that norms influence behavior when they are salient to an individual. It was a follow-up to a series of studies conducted in collaboration with Bob Cialdini and colleagues at Arizona State University. In this study the impact of the framing of normative messages was examined through signs posted along trails in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. Messages were aimed at encouraging visitors to stay on the established trails.

The first two conditions regarded the actions of others and were either positively (descriptive-prescriptive, i.e., "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.") or negatively worded (descriptive-proscriptive, i.e., "Many past visitors have gone off the established paths and trails, changing the natural state of the Sequoias and vegetation in this park.") The third and fourth conditions stipulated the desired or undesired behavior in the following forms: "Please stay on the established paths and trails, in order to protect the Sequoias and natural vegetation in this park." (injunctive-prescriptive) and "Please don't go off the established paths and trails, in order to protect the Sequoias and natural vegetation in this park." (injunctive-proscriptive). In the fifth condition (control) no experimenter-introduced sign was used. Park signs normally in the settings were present across all conditions.

Digital video recordings of trail use were obtained for two-hour time blocks, randomly assigned to either morning or afternoon sessions along four trails. A total of 2,838 observations of hikers were gathered.

The majority of hikers stayed on the trail (83%). Younger hikers (those appearing to be under 16 years of age) were more likely to go off trail than were adults. Significant differences by experimental condition were found. The injunctive-proscriptive message ("Please don't go off...") was associated with the lowest percentage of off-trail hiking (5.1% of hikers went off-trail) when compared with all other experimental conditions (16.1%). In comparison, the descriptive-proscriptive message ("Many past visitors have gone off...") was associated with the highest levels of off-trail use (18.7% of hikers went off-trail), when compared to all other experimental conditions combined (11% of hikers went off-trail).

Findings suggest managers would not want to use messages that refer to an undesirable behavior as something that occurs frequently. To be most effective in reducing undesirable acts, managers would politely state what visitors are not to do in a setting and would include a brief justification.

For more information about this study contact Pat Winter at 951-680-1557 orEmployee E-mail Address Image.

Publications and Products related to this subject:

Winter, P.L. 2005. The impact of normative message types on depreciative activities. Investigator's Annual Report. Available: 2 p.

Research conducted by:
Last Modified: Mar 28, 2013 03:34:01 PM