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Promoting Positive Behavior in Nature (with Bob...)

Updated: Jan 12, 2022

Most of us would agree that the images below are not something we would do, or encourage. However such negative behavior is often inadvertent, happening because someone either doesn’t know any better, they are not thinking about the impact of their actions, or the design of the activity misses the opportunity to nudge behavior in a positive direction.

In this article we will explore three levels of behavioral solutions that help us understand and influence visitor, or tourism supplier, behavior in nature.

  1. The first, and most common level is the provision of information. We will see that it’s not as simple as just posting a sign and explore ways information can be presented to have the greatest influence on positive behavior.

  2. The second level is to make the desired behavior an easy (ideally fun) and ‘default’ option to engage in. This is based on adjusting the design of activities and tourism experiences so that positive behavior is inherent, rather than a choice, as well as employing social pressure to reinforced positive behavior.

  3. The third level is a deeper analysis and mapping of visitor or service provider behavior that can help to unearth the root reasons why negative behavior is occurring and then design tactics that target each underlying cause.

Let’s explore each of these levels in more depth. To do this we are going to use a story (fable) with our imaginary character, Bob (apologies to all the Bob’s out there)! Bob is a novice outdoor traveler who can get himself in all sorts of trouble if he is not guided on appropriate behavior in the places he visits.

Eager to get out in a place that does not require masks or social distances, Bob decides to go for a hike in the mountains. Upon arrival at the trailhead there is a sign providing information about the park, the trail, local wildlife and the do’s and don’ts while in the park. Bob, like most of us, reads a little about the park, looks at the trail map and briefly skims the do’s and don’ts. It’s a lot of information and he wants to get started on his hike; so off he goes, gamely strolling up the path in his sandals, a lunch and bottle of water swinging from his hand in a plastic bag he got at a nearby store.

An hour into the hike Bob’s feet are feeling rather sore, he didn’t realize the elevation of the hike and the rough terrain; his sandals were clearly the wrong choice for this trail. He spots a nice clearing with a picnic table and decides to stop, take in the views, rest his feet and eat his lunch.

What a lovely day, thought Bob, the sun is shining, the birds are singing and ohhh… what’s that, a raccoon foraging in the grass. He must be hungry, thought Bob, I’ll give him some of my sandwich and take a quick selfie to show my friends...

Five minutes later Bob is trudging back down the path, heading home, feeling hungry, thirsty and bleeding from the scratch on his arm from the raccoon. He had tried to get close and give the raccoon some of his sandwich, one hand outstretched with his phone to capture the moment on video. The raccoon, feeling threatened, had taken a swipe at Bob, scratching his arm. Bob had dropped his sandwich in surprise and the raccoon had quickly scooped it up and ran off. Feeling insulted by this injustice, Bob had thrown his water bottle at the raccoon in an attempt to get his sandwich back, only to lose the water bottle in the undergrowth along with his sandwich and the raccoon. The plastic bag his lunch had come in had been forgotten on the picnic table and soon blew away into a nearby tree.

With Bob safely on his way home, another hiker arrives at the clearing and wonders with amazement why anyone in their right mind would leave their litter and leftover pieces of sandwich scattered about the site with no thought for others or the environment.

(Side note, if you think this fable is ridiculous, there are plenty of real-life examples that are far worse!)

Let’s analyze Bob’s ill-fated hike, and how better information could have prevented such a situation.

Level 1: Information

Information is often not enough on its own to make the desired behavioral changes, however it is an important part of the mix. There are four critical components to effective information that we will explore; what information is presented to make visitors aware as well as where, when and how the information is provided so that it actually influences behavior in a positive way.

What information could have helped Bob? Information about feeding wildlife for sure. Also information on the elevation and terrain of the trail, appropriate clothing (footwear) and leave-no-trace information (littering).

The reality is that the information Bob needed was probably provided on the sign at the beginning of the trail, but it was mixed with lots of other information, located at a place and time when Bob’s inclination was not to read it thoroughly, and if he had read it, he would quite likely not remember it an hour into the hike. The 'where,' 'when' and 'how' are therefore as important as the information itself.

Where – Providing information at different points and through different media during the planning and visiting experience increases recall and uptake of the information being presented. It is important to position information so that travelers are exposed to it at the moment when it can influence the choice. For example, Bob needs to be made aware of the elevation and appropriate hiking gear he needs at the time when he is preparing and can either put on the right shoes or buy a pair of hiking shoes if he does not own any.

Having short, clear and engaging messaging on a website, on social media channels, in print materials (if applicable) and through special signage helps to ensure exposure during the planning stage and drive home important messages that influence choices when the time comes. Reminders at other points of contact such as ‘how much time does it take for your plastic bag to decompose...’ posters and stickers at local restaurants, stores, etc. can also help build awareness and influence

If a human element is a part of the experience, such as a park ranger or guide, they are also a vital source of information that can influence visitor behavior. They can share relevant information or can use ‘role play tricks’ such as designating 1-2 people in the group to be responsible to check no trash is left behind or remind others to keep to the trail. This positive peer pressure, coupled with other effective information, such as engaging signage, can make a significant difference in how Bob and his peers act when out in nature.

When – Information can also be provided at different geographic points in a visitors experience. For example, many natural landscapes have adopted the seven principles of Leave no Trace. These principles could be split up on different signs and (with the exception of planning ahead) spread out and staggered along the road into the park or at the start of the trail so that visitors read and internalize each principle as they progress. The repetition also helps to reinforce the message.

An important rule is to ensure that signs aiming to influence specific actions appear at the point when that action is most likely. For example, a sign reminding guests to collect and take out their trash makes more sense in an area where people stop for a picnic rather than at a random spot along the trail. Similarly, a sign reminding visitors that picking flowers is not appropriate, should appear in areas where there is a concentration of blooming plants.

In the example of Bob’s experience, signage at the clearing with the picnic table is a good location where brief information on taking your trash with you and not feeding the animals would have been good to repeat. This could be creatively designed and installed on the picnic table itself to remind people to act responsibly as they sit down to eat, or beside the trail so that it would be hard to miss (or both).

How – information can be presented in different ways, using graphics and images, making it fun and engaging and breaking it up into easily digestible ‘chunks’ of information are all important. An example of this can be the issue Bob ran into with not understanding the elevation change on the trail. Signage could be designed to show a three-dimensional model of the elevation of the trail from the start point in relation to the average size of a person, allowing visitors to easily visualize the amount of climb involved.

Some locations have visitors sign a pledge, such as the Palau Pledge, where they commit to certain principles when visiting a destination. The act of signing and committing to the principles helps to reinforce the actions and stimulates social pressure for all visitors to regulate each other. It should be noted that it is more effective if such pledges are presented at the entrance of a park or at the start of an activity, rather than some time before people depart, such as when they may be booking tickets or just browsing the destination website.

Level 2: Default Behavior

Information builds awareness about an issue or desired behavior, but awareness PLUS ‘automation’ of desired behavior can ensure most travelers are 'good doers' in a place. This involves making desired behavior the norm and activating social pressure (such as providing information about the choice of the majority) to achieve this goal. This is very effective when we know visitors engage in undesirable behavior simply due to a lack of understanding or attention.

Automation can be achieved through default options or with social pressure. A good example that can be applied to natural land-or-seascapes is reuse of towels at hotels or accomodation facilities. Studies have shown that switching messaging from “Please reuse your towel” to “75% of guests that stayed in this room re-used their towels” increases uptake of the desired behavior among guests.

In the example of Bob’s trip to the park, signage could have been developed that says ‘99% of visitors take their trash with them, please don’t be the 1%’ (with a picture of the trash the 1% have left behind). This would be more effective than simply asking people not to litter because it ties the message to our psychological desire to identify with others (the 99%).

There are some tricks as to whether and when you want to use positive encouragement and negative encouragement in awareness and encouragement initiatives. When the desired behavior is new and few people practice it, messaging is more effective when it is positive - collecting your trash is a good thing. When most people begin following this practice as the norm but a few still do not, you want to turn to negative messaging - not collecting your trash is bad (or don't be the 1%).

Automation can also be achieved by making something sustainable by design (more on this in our next article). Using the same towel example used earlier and taking it further, some hotels have designed their towel policy to make the default policy not to change towels unless the guest asks for a new towel. This further increases uptake in the desired behavior as the default action is to reuse the towel.

Translating this example to the park Bob visited, the local store where he bought his lunch could have had a default policy not to provide plastic bags unless someone asks for one. Tying this back to social pressure, if Bob did ask for a bag, the bag could have a printed message on it saying “Please use this bag to carry out your trash and keep our park clean.”

Level 3: Behavior Mapping/Analysis

In many cases a brief review of the behavioral issues faced by a place can help identify solutions like the ones described in this article. However, in some cases a deeper dive may be needed to really unearth and understand the root causes of undesired behavioral patterns. In such cases behavioral mapping (analysis) specific to a location can help identify the drivers of undesirable behavior and potential motivators for desired behavior. For example, some visitors may be destructive because of certain associations with a place, cultural norms from one’s home or dissatisfaction with the experience. With this information, solutions can be designed, tested, refined and implemented to establish the most effective path to mitigating undesirable triggers, and boost positive behavior.

Every place is different, and solutions that work in one place may not be appropriate in another. Often taking a step back, reviewing the issues with an open mind and engaging different perspectives can help to design simple and relatively low-cost solutions that can have big impacts on visitor and supplier behavior in a place. Precision in behavioral mapping is a strong prerequisite for the selection and roll out of the most relevant mix of behavior-influencing solutions.


We will further explore behavioral topics in additional articles in this series, including how behavioral thinking can apply to:

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