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Now that I have your attention, can I ask if you will read this blog today? Now, go and make a coffee and think about it. The blog will still be here when you get back.

Ok, you’re still reading? It worked then? That’s ok, I know you didn’t really make a
coffee. You’re more of a tea person, right?

These somewhat trivial instructions can influence whether someone will modify their behaviour. Take a Stop sign. It doesn’t ask you to ponder whether you would like to stop. It just directs you to do so. And most of the time people comply. This kind of message is what’s referred to as an ‘imperative’.

But think about the kind of message you get on the back of a cigarette packet. It usually highlights a horrible disease you might develop as a result of smoking, getting you to ponder and make a choice. That is, it doesn’t simply say, ‘Stop smoking now,’ recognising that some behaviour is modified over time and needs to be sustainable.

These messages are called ‘interrogative’ because they rely on you taking more time to process the information.

A recent study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology showed that people are more likely to follow the interrogative message when they have more time to think it through.

In one study they placed a sign next to a flight of stairs and set of escalators. Two
types of messages were posted. Pedestrians either saw the imperative message (‘Take the Stairs’) or interrogative message (‘Will you take the stairs?’).

At first it looked like the imperative message was more effective because more pedestrians took the stairs when they viewed this message. However, when the sign was placed further away from the escalator, to give more time for people to consider the message, they were more likely to use the stairs after reading the interrogative message.

The researchers suggest that when there is little time, direct messages are more
likely to be followed. However, when people have a bit more time to think, they
generally prefer instructions that invite autonomy and choice.

The point is that direct and blunt instructions may get people to act but they may be less inclined to follow these instructions when they have time to think it through. That is, people want some say in their destiny.

Stop reading now! If you want to…

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