Words are not enough to Change Behavior

An interesting example of a tactic to influence consumer behavior can be found along the interstates in Tennessee. The Tennessee Department of Transportation is using digital signs on the interstates in a new, and for some people unsettling, way. The numbers of vehicle and motorcycle fatalities in the state are being displayed on the signs when not in use to communicate usual information like lane closures and blockages. The messaging maintains the same end that TDOT has always had – be safe while driving. However, the means to that end are a departure from usual tactics, and it bothers some motorists.

What are the objections to the signs? Some people believe reporting of traffic deaths has been reduced to a game, with the signs becoming a scoreboard for fatalities. Others see the signs as one more distraction on the roadways, having an unintended effect of possibly contributing to an accident than preventing one. For opponents of the signs, more police presence and enforcement of laws are preferred to the digital signs.

If TDOT’s goal is to reduce the number of traffic fatalities, then the challenge is to change behaviors that contribute to accidents. Creating a shift in behavior requires challenging people’s beliefs and changing attitudes. In this situation, general messages like “stay safe” are likely to have little impact. They are merely words that become one of hundreds of messages we are exposed to daily.

To cut through the message clutter, ideas have to be presented in ways that force us to process information. Only then is there a chance that our beliefs and attitudes can be influenced, setting the stage for behavior modification. TDOT’s use of a concrete message such as the number of fatalities has the “stay safe” theme as an undertone, but it can be a jolt to the beliefs held by people about the importance of driving safely. Perhaps some people do not like the messages on highway fatalities because they work. Rather than being able to ignore the message like most of the others that they pass along the road, this message has the desired effect of getting their attention and causing them to think about driving safety.

If you want to change behavior among your customers, employees, children, whoever your target audience may be, consider the presentation of your messaging. There may be important points that you wish to communicate, but a straightforward presentation of facts and information may fall on deaf ears. It is not because your value proposition is weak; your messaging is not resonating with the intended audience. Words are powerful because they can shake our beliefs and influence how we feel. But, words alone are not enough to change behavior. The strategy behind the message is to persuade people to care.

The Tennessean - TN Fatality Board a Warning to Motorists, Distraction to Some 

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