Authored by: Associate Professor Amir Grinstein & Assistant Professor Ann Kronrod
What is more important: what you say, or how you say it?
The beauty is that both are significant.
We started this project when we realized that pro-social communication that addresses habits or actions that lead to healthier and generally more desired behavior often uses praising, like “you’re doing a great job”, or scolding, like “you’re not doing enough.” This messaging is very common and is often seen in marketing slogans.
We know that scolding makes people feel guilty and to avoid that guilt, people would change their behavior. “I drank too much coffee, I need to improve.” Praising, on the other hand, can lead to satisfaction and forward momentum. When praised, people think, “I will keep doing what I was praised for, to keep feeling good.” However, some researchers say that both types of communication can be ineffective. Ultimately, if someone is scolded, they can become discouraged and shut down, and if someone is told they are on top of their game, they can become over-complacent and neglect the desired behavior.
While examining these contradicting pieces of research, we found that not only what you say is important, but also how you say it: the tone that accompanies the message is very important for its success. We focused on assertiveness of the tone, which can be defined as the extent to which the communicator is leaving the receiver freedom of action. Assertive messages are very direct. They are like commands. Non-assertive messages are much softer. They are like suggestions or requests. When the tone is paired with praising or scolding, we have four communication options:
- Praising assertively
- Praising non-assertively
- Scolding assertively
- Scolding non-assertively
This project was developed with a distinct focus on natural human behavior, seeking to find what is most effective in a real life context, through field experiments.
In an experiment with a university’s human resources office, we tested the four messages in the context of encouraging employees to invest more in their retirement. The HR office sent emails to four groups of employees, scolding or praising them, more or less assertively about their actions for their retirement and encouraging them to click a link to watch an educative video about retirement savings. The findings showed that recipients are much more responsive (we got more clicks) if a praising message is paired with an assertive tone or if a scolding message is paired with a non-assertive tone. The reason for this is that praise puts people in a positive mood and people in positive moods tend to be more open to assertive language. In fact, gentle language may sound like it is degrading the praise. Conversely, scolding elevates guilt and an assertive tone may even deepen the guilt further, resulting in despair. A more gentle tone replenishes the unpleasant feeling of guilt and therefore invites readiness to comply.
Based on the same logics, we ran another field experiment, encouraging people to wash their hands with soap – always. We first measured the weight of soap dispensers in ten public restrooms on campus (five men’s rooms and five women’s rooms). The measurement took place every day for a week. This was our baseline measure of soap usage. Then we divided the ten restrooms into five groups: four of the groups represented our four conditions. In those restrooms we installed signs with praising/scolding assertive/non-assertive messages. An example of a praising non-assertive message would be: “You are doing a lot for your health. You can do more. You can wash your hands with soap – Always.” An example of a praising assertive message is: “You are doing a lot for your health. You must do more! Wash your hands with soap – Always!” Two restrooms served as a control group and we didn’t place any messages in them. For a second week, we weighed the soap dispensers in all ten restrooms, and discovered that in those restrooms where we installed the assertive praise and the non-assertive scolding messages, the level of soap decreased significantly more than in the other restrooms. To see the extent of this effect, we took away all signs after this week and continued weighing the dispensers for another (third) week. We noticed that the differences between the restrooms were reduced during that week. We think that this happened because visitors of restrooms vary greatly, so people who visited during the third week are not necessarily the same people who saw our messages a week before. Generally, this suggests that in order to maintain the influence of such messages, marketers need to set reminders. But this is true for most communications and campaigns.
In search for effective ways to encourage consumers to follow desired behaviors such as healthy eating, recycling or financial planning, marketers sometimes use praising (e.g., You are doing great) and sometimes use scolding (e.g., You are not doing enough). However, the effectiveness of each approach in triggering behavior is not clear. A possible reason is that it is not only what you say that matters, but also how you say it: Praising and scolding can be performed with a more or a less assertive (strong and direct) tone. This research introduces assertiveness, as a moderator that can explain when praising or scolding would be more successful in modifying behavior. Two field experiments in the context of hand hygiene and financial planning demonstrate that when communicators praise consumers, an assertive tone may be more effective in encouraging behavior, whereas scolding requires a non-assertive tone. These field findings are then replicated in a controlled laboratory experiment, which also provides click rates as an actual behavioral outcome.
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