Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Improving the effectiveness of rules signs

UK researchers Melissa Bateson, Daniel Nettle, and Gilbert Roberts found that people are more likely to follow posted rules if the sign includes an image of eyes watching them. I posted this several years ago, and am wondering if any museums or zoos tried it?

I'm frequently asked for ideas on how to word "rules" signs so that visitors follow them. This innovative study, which you can find on Daniel Nettle's Web site, studied whether people were more likely to donate money to an office coffee fund if the poster design changed--from a header of flowers to human eyes. They studied several different versions of the poster, with and without eyes, and found that people were three times as likely to comply with the posted rules when eyes were present.

Images used on poster (from their paper posted online)

They are guessing that the feeling of being watched, however subtle, influences behavior. It's called "reputational concern" in behaviorist-speak. So, if you work at a zoo, and don't want people pounding on the glass at a primate exhibit, try primate eyes on the sign. In a natural history or archeology museum, try a photograph of a person's eyes that is themed to your exhibits. See their paper for more specifics.


  1. I'm familiar with "eye" signs accompanying "don't" rules (don't tap on the glass, don't forget to contribute to the coffee fund); I wonder if the theme is effective for "do" rules (do touch this, do play with this, do try this).

  2. Human eyeballs are one thing. But what if it's the Big Guy? In a more recent paper, titled "God Is Watching You," University of British Columbia researchers found that people were willing to give more money to anonymous strangers if encouraged to think about God than if not. Hard to get God's eyeballs onto the poster, though. The full paper is available at
    What's being activated in these studies is prosocial behavior. From my perspective as a consumer psychologist, I'd think that eyeballs on Katie's "do touch this" poster would produce more sharing among a group of people all interested in touching whatever it is, but would crimp the creativity and augment the anxiety of each toucher.