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Volume 25
Number 1
Summer 2008
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Science Notes
Published: 4 Sep 2015 (online)  •  14 Sep 2015 (in print)
Partnerships empower hydrology program at Big Cypress
Pupfish recovery targets food availability at Devils Hole
Restoring hydrologic processes and protecting karst resources at Antietam National Battlefield
Salvaged mussels: Reconstructing prehistoric conditions from looted archaeological sites at Buffalo National River
Mine portals at New River Gorge: An ecological perspective
  Park signs and visitor behavior: A research summary
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Park signs and visitor behavior: A research summary

Test sign used at Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks.

Relying on an illustration and words, this sign is used at Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks. Though it has not been studied, it seems to frame the injunctive-proscriptive message. Furthermore, it addresses a management issue in a setting where a high number of international visitors, including those who do not read English, are found. The author plans to study this approach.

National park staffs rely on signs to inform visitors of a great variety of expected behaviors. Where park rangers or volunteers physically cannot be present to remind visitors of important rules, signs can be especially helpful. However, as any ranger will attest, signs vary in effectiveness. The reasons for this are numerous, but message content is a critical factor.

Many studies have examined the effectiveness of interventions to reduce the incidence of damage to natural and cultural resources and facilities in outdoor settings. Cialdini et al. (1990, 1991, and 2006) discuss the “Focus Theory of Normative Conduct,” which stipulates that social norms can be a powerful influence on human behavior. Normative information either describes typical human behavior (descriptive) or relates desirable behavior in a particular situation (injunctive), and is framed positively (prescriptive) or negatively (proscriptive). Table 1 presents combinations of message patterns that follow this two-by-two conceptualization of norms. These patterns have served as the basis of a series of studies investigating the effectiveness of signs in directing human behavior.

Background investigations

In 1998 my colleagues and I examined signage in park and forest settings (Winter et al. 1998). We found that the majority of signs focused on rules and regulations and related desired behavior in negative terms (injunctive-proscriptive pattern, e.g., “Don’t leave the trail”). In 2000 we reported results of surveys with professional interpreters and educators who were asked to judge the anticipated effectiveness of a variety of messages (Winter et al. 2000). The messages presented desired behaviors (injunctive) in positive or negative terms (e.g., “Protect our environment. Please extinguish your fire,” and “Don’t endanger our environment. Please don’t leave your fire burning”). The positively worded messages were viewed as the most effective.

In another study we field-tested the four message types in deterring theft of petrified wood at Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona (Cialdini et al. 2006). We placed signs displaying different messages along park trails and monitored the amount of petrified wood stolen under each condition. The control was the absence of a sign. The least theft occurred in the presence of the sign presenting desired behavior in negative terms (i.e., injunctive-proscriptive), “Please don’t remove the petrified wood in the park,” paired with an illustration of the desired behavior, in this case a photo of a person admiring petrified wood on the ground. The message associated with the most theft highlighted the unwanted behavior and was negative (i.e., descriptive-proscriptive): “Many past visitors have removed the petrified wood from the park, changing the state of the Petrified Forest.”

Sign research at Sequoia and Kings Canyon

Recently I tested similar messages, but without photographs, at Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks (California) (Winter 2006). Again I used the two-by-two conceptualization in formulating messages (see table 1) with a control of no sign. All messages were polite, presented clearly and singularly on the sign, and expressed prohibition of off-trail hiking and a brief justification. Signs were 12 by 16 inches (30 x 41 cm), constructed of aluminum and placed on iron posts, and featured white lettering on a dark brown background. Signs were placed along trails in pairs (at two opposing points) at four locations that varied in level of use, amount of existing signs, and degree of resource hardening. Tests were conducted on weekend days in randomly assigned time blocks (see Winter 2006). The research team videotaped hikers in full view of the trail (to assuage privacy concerns), and recordings were evaluated by two independent raters and an arbitrator.

The number of people going off-trail varied significantly by experimental condition, with the greatest proportion of off-trail use occurring where there was no sign. The most effective message (5.1% left the trail) presented desired behavior in negative terms (injunctive-proscriptive message; see table 1). Least effective (18.7% left the trail) was the message describing others’ behavior in a negative way (descriptive-proscriptive; see table 1).

Comparing just the desired-behavior messages (i.e., injunctive), it was better to tell people not to go off the trail (negative/proscriptive; 5.1% left the trail) than to stay on it (positive/prescriptive; 15.9% left the trail). Messages describing typical behavior (i.e., descriptive) revealed a different pattern: the most effective (11.8% left the trail) were positive (i.e., prescriptive) rather than negative (i.e., proscriptive; 18.7% left the trail).

It was better to tell people not to go off the trail … than to stay on it.

Conclusion and limitations

The findings from the Petrified Forest and Sequoia/Kings Canyon studies contrast with what interpreters and educators thought would be most effective, suggesting instead the use of injunctive-proscriptive messages (i.e., desired behavior, negative wording) in signage when relaying information pertaining to desired visitor behaviors, rules, and regulations.

Application of the findings, however, is limited. This research sought to resolve local resource management problems and did not test the influence of the messages beyond the immediate vicinity of the signs or over a longer-term park visit. Furthermore, the research focused on visitors acting out relatively simple and easily accomplished actions. Behaviors that would require more effort or for which the setting presents substantial barriers might not lead to the same outcomes.

Nevertheless, the research was carried out in park settings involving the public. The results are helpful in identifying practical management approaches in situations where individual variations in attitudes and knowledge about park management and ecology, outdoor recreation, and outdoor experience cannot easily be known or accounted for.


Cialdini, R. B., L. J. Demaine, B. J. Sagarin, D. W. Barrett, K. Rhoads, and P. L. Winter. 2006. Managing social norms for persuasive impact. Social Influence 1(1):3–15.

Cialdini, R. B., C. A. Kallgren, and R. R. Reno. 1991. A focus theory of normative conduct: A theoretical refinement and reevaluation of the role of norms in human behavior. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology 24:201–234.

Cialdini, R. B., R. R. Reno, and C. A. Kallgren. 1990. A focus theory of normative conduct: Recycling the concept of norms to reduce littering in public places. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 58(6):1015–1026.

Winter, P. L. 2006. The impact of normative message types on off-trail hiking. Journal of Interpretation Research 11(1):35–52.

Winter, P. L., R. B. Cialdini, R. J. Bator, K. Rhoads, and B. J. Sagarin. 1998. An analysis of normative messages in signs at recreation settings. Journal of Interpretation Research 3(1):39–47.

Winter, P. L., B. J. Sagarin, K. Rhoads, D. W. Barrett, and R. B. Cialdini. 2000. Choosing to encourage or discourage: Perceived effectiveness of prescriptive versus proscriptive messages. Environmental Management 26(6):589–594.

Patricia L. Winter, PhD, Research Social Scientist, USDA Forest Service, Pacific Southwest Research Station, Riverside, California. Contact the author by e-mail..

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From the Editor
In This Issue
Comments and Corrections
20 Years Ago in Park Science
Information Crossfile
  Science Notes
Field Moment
Meetings of Interest
Masthead Information
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Saving the seabeach amaranth
Collaboration of the Natural Resource and Museum programs: A research tool for information archives at Dinosaur National Monument
Using virtual Research Learning Centers for disseminating science information about national park resources
Using landscape analysis to evaluate ecological impacts of battlefield restoration
A behavioral intervention tool for recreation managers
Adaptive management for natural parks: Considerations for an experimental approach
Cultivating connection: Incorporating meaningful citizen science into Cape Cod National Seashore’s estuarine research and monitoring programs
Ranking and mapping exotic species at Capulin Volcano and Fort Union national monuments
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