Hennepin County resorts to color psychology in fight against invasives

Does this sign make you want to stop and clean up your boat?
Does this sign make you want to stop and clean up your boat?
Hennepin County Public Affairs

While some lakes are shutting down boat launches or instituting 24-hour watches to combat invasive aquatic species, Hennepin County has decided to take a different approach: behavioral psychology and peer pressure.

One of the results from the county's $40,000 pilot project is the use of blue on new signs, because research showed that the color "translates into confidence and trust," says county environmental educator Angie Timmons. "Part of the message we really wanted to convey is that taking an action to prevent invasive species is effective, and blue reinforces that. We're trying subtle things."

The project started after researchers last year found one in five boaters flouting rules designed to stop the spread of invasives. That number inspired the county, which manages two boat launches on Lake Minnetonka, to resort to unconventional methods.

First, Hennepin's environmental services teamed up with public health researchers at the U, and found that rule-breaking stemmed from time and space constraints, and the feeling that one boat couldn't make a difference. They opted to re-configure the access area and create new signs to grab boaters' attention and hammer home the rules.

Stoplight colors grab attention.
Stoplight colors grab attention.
Hennepin County Public Affairs

Part of that was color. In addition to the blue signs, which have such slogans as "Clean in, Clean out," are checklist boards in familiar red, yellow, and green, with lights that blink on when a car pulls up. The county also re-framed its message to be less about saving some unspecified environment, and more about how Minnesotans love their lakes. "We have pictures of people out fishing and enjoying the lake, and those say, this is why you need to take these actions," says Timmons.

Then there was the peer pressure. After research showed that boaters felt pressure to clear out of the crowded access lanes quickly, the county designated lanes just for stopping to pull drain plugs and compost weeds. Timmons says she hopes these changes to the space will "flip that social peer pressure," and instead of rushing through to be courteous, boaters will see that it's more polite to clean up.

The project kicked off at the North Arm access in Orono when 13 signs were installed in mid-June. Timmons says that so far, the response has been good, and that the county will assess the overall impact at the end of the summer and look into implementing the changes at its other launch site.

The state Department of Natural Resources has its own plans to upgrade lake access points by the end of the summer, but is also, Timmons says, looking at Hennepin County's research, as is the city of Eden Prairie.

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