People are adapters. We adapt slowly, and we adapt quickly, depending upon the situation. Social adaptation is one of the fastest of all our adaptation skills. That is – behavior around other people. People have an innate desire to conform, to be within the bell curve of normative behavior, to camouflage our behavior so we are not picked out as odd or different or laughable. We want to be part of the group. Maybe that’s eons of self-preservation talking to us (or maybe it’s the result of junior high). Maybe deep inside we know that if we’re ‘different’ the crowd will turn on us like a pack of wolves. So we pay attention, we notice what others are wearing, doing, how they are reacting and behaving, and we take great lengths to blend in.
With a little of this experience we develop a set of behaviors that we call on as circumstances and places change.
Behavior is associated with place. You know that and you change just like everyone else. Church, school, library, movie, opera, symphony, home, family, friends, strangers, playground, jogging, biking, hiking trail, park, or museum – all have a set of dress and behavior associated with them. Each is learned, taught to us as we grow up by visiting those places and seeing our parent’s behavior, our friend’s behavior, and how others behave there. If we visit a new country, or a new church, we bring with us knowledge of our behavior in similar places, and we pay close attention to those around us to see how they behave and we modify our actions to mimic theirs so we don’t do the wrong thing. We are very sensitive to the behavior patterns around us.
Can we cultivate a ‘behavior norm’ for our park? Museums have a different behavior norm than a park or a zoo. Are parks so different from other places that there is no behavior norm? How would you define the normative behavior at your site? Is there a similarity in clothes worn, in activities participated in, in use of voice and language, in respect for the place, in respect for others there?
Can you modify visitor actions to create a new norm of behavior? That answer is a firm “YES!”
Actions are based on beliefs and the expectation that there will certain rewards for certain actions. While beliefs and habit lead to specific behaviors in various places, this level of belief and habit are some of the easiest to modify (that is, to bend, to push, to nudge in a more favorable direction.) We advertisements attempting this everyday – nudging you, repeating to you, attempting to move you just a little so that you will choose their brand over another.
This is a perfect field for interpretation. It IS interpretation.
Each state park is created to protect a very special place, to provide a distinct experience and to tell a specific and important story. State parks are not commonplace nor are they throw away places. There should be a normative level of behavior in a state park that is above that of random recreation places. This won’t just happen. Everything about the park should be designed to bring this about.
When someone enters ‘the walls’ of the state park a feeling of being in a special place should overcome them and a specific set of behaviors should fall into place. This new norm of behavior should be based on the understanding that this is a special place – because interpretation has told that story on websites and other media long before the visitor arrives. This is continued at the park entrance (you have arrived at this special place), along the entrance road (trees are closer to the road and maintenance is designed to create an instant feeling of ‘wildness’ here, not a manicured city roadside or a mowed city park), at the visitor center (exhibits are about the resource and based on the park interpretation themes, and your welcome staff use the park theme so each visitor hears why this park is significant rather than merely a litany of things to do here), and through consistency of park design and interpretation that create an atmosphere of thematic uniqueness. All this a defining entry experience, the park experience, and a strong conclusion at the exit experience.
Interpretive experiences would emphasize the values and meanings of this place, and there would be no programs or events that do not connect the visitor to the deeper meaning of the park. Those programs would include a sense of reverence for the place – you are in a special place and a level of behavior is appropriate here.
How would you define that level of behavior at your place? List 10 behaviors your ideal visitor would have. Use that list in programs and bend, push, and nudge visitor behavior toward a new norm. The end game: over time that behavior is adopted as the norm when visiting your site. People will adapt if you set the standard based on the values and meanings of place.