Linos, Elizabeth & Lasky-Fink, Jessica & Larkin, Chris & Moore, Lindsay & Kirkman, Elspeth. (2023). “The formality effect.” Nature Human Behaviour. 10.1038/s41562-023-01761-z.

What’s the issue?

Governments communicate with people in writing on many issues. To be effective, they must connect with people and get them to respond to important messages. Therefore, optimizing government communication is key. But what is the best tone and look to achieve results?

What does the research say?

Researchers, including Associate Professor Elizabeth Linos and Jessica Lasky-Fink from Harvard Kennedy School’s People Lab, used three online and three field experiments in different policy contexts to study the effectiveness of government communications. They found that letters using a more formal design and tone were seen as more trustworthy and important than less formal messages, and that recipients were more likely to respond to these formal communications. These results contradicted what many experts predicted—that a casual tone would resonate most. The authors write, “These findings have immediate implications for government communicators and open the door for a renewed focus on how the design and presentation of information impacts behavior.”

Artwork by Bailey Meadows

Get smart & reliable public policy insights right in your inbox.