What’s in a Word?

Are zoo animals looked after by “keepers” or “caregivers”? Do aquarium animals live in “exhibits” or in “enclosures”? Should these institutions  focus on “maximizing safety” or “minimizing risk”? Do these words feel interchangeable? Or do they make you think differently about zoos and aquariums (Z/As)?

The way we talk about Z/As shapes how people view these institutions. It seems obvious that the language Z/As use to describe their work in exhibitions, marketing, and the media influences the public’s perception.

Answering questions like these could influence the language Z/As use on their marketing and informational signage to better connect with visitors. To test this idea, NewKnowledge researchers designed a new way to measure public perception of Z/As by studying the words institutions commonly use, specifically considering  interchangeable words. Their approach focuses on carefully selected terms that zoo and aquarium professionals identified as focus areas within the industry based on their personal experience and recommendations from the WZAM research team. The researchers then compared similar terms to discover which approach the public trusted more.

Finally, the WZAM research team also narrowed their focus from the entire public to the part of the population that doesn’t have extreme views on zoos and aquariums, either favorable or unfavorable.  People with very strong opinions on any topic are susceptible to interpreting messages or experiences in a way that confirms their perspective — this is called confirmation bias.1 Focusing instead on the “moderate majority” of the opinion spectrum on zoos and aquariums allowed the research team to understand the perspectives of people who take into account different types of information and experiences to form their views on zoos and aquariums.  

The experiments divided similar phrases between survey takers, showing each participant one option for ever pair. Survey-takers then rated the importance of each word in the phrase on a scale from 1 to 7. Each statement was also randomly associated with either zoo or aquarium to determine if word preference depends on the type of institution.

Here’s an example of some of the phrases. The highlighted words were the ones people rated on their level of importance.

How important is each of the following for you to trust a Z/A? The Z/A…
Comply with government regulations as adequate standards for keeping animals. Comply with government regulations as adequate for caring for animals.
Have strategies to maximize safety for the people that work there. Have strategies to minimize risk for the people that work there.
The keeper staff courteously answer visitor questions. The caregiver staff courteously answer visitor questions.
Student researchers collaborate with zoos/aquariums to learn about animals. Student scientists collaborate with zoos/aquariums to learn about animals.

Though differences between the words may seem minor, we hoped they would illuminate a clear pathway for more effective communication strategies for establishing trust between Z/As and the public. However, we found that these subtle differences in word choice had minimal impact on how the public situates Z/As.

While these results may feel less than than thrilling, this question had remained unanswered for many people in the zoo and aquarium field.  Now we know that the context in which words are used may be more important than specific word choice. This finding might encourage communication teams at Z/As to focus on aspects other than specific word choice when designing messaging strategies.

And of course, we want to know more! We are now in the process of determining the next step to further investigate linguistic influences on the way people perceive Z/As. Check in again down the line as we continue studying word matters!

1. For more on confirmation bias, see Nickerson, R. S. (1998), “Confirmation Bias: A Ubiquitous Phenomenon in Many Guises”, Review of General Psychology, 2 (2): 175–220, doi:10.1037/1089-2680.2.2.175

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