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Parents, read to your children!

By Lára Hilmarsdóttir and Gerard Loosschilder

Why get them to read?

We hear time and again that reading is good for us, we should do more of it and when a new study comes out confirming the demise of reading, policy-makers and schoolmasters alike go on national TV claiming the demise of education and by proxy, civilized and cultured life as we know it. So why all the drama on reading?

A large body of research exist that clearly shows that reading for pleasure is good for you. The benefits range from the usual suspects – increasing the amount of knowledge one possesses and improving language skills such as the size of one’s vocabulary and one’s writing ability – to surprisingly more varied ones including cognitive, emotional and social gains that will last a lifetime. Reading can also serve as a preventative tool for other issues; research has shown that developing reading skills in early childhood has been shown to compensates for lower cognitive ability later in life, and those who continue to read over the course of their life experience a slower cognitive decline at an old age. Although our favorite characters may only exist in black and white in print, reading also has social benefits. It has shown to alleviate loneliness among seniors, and avid readers are better able to empathize with others and comprehend that others hold beliefs and opinions different from one’s own.

There is also ample support for encouraging adults to start reading to their children from an early age, as early literary experience such as being read to by an adult have been shown to amplify the benefits of reading through­out life, from more developed language skills to higher academic achievements.

Unfortunately, people are not just reading less but their reading diets are also becoming increasingly poor, as a handful of repeat best-seller authors and a few genres have come to dominate bookstore and library shelves. This is a trend that may spill over to adults reading behavior to their children. To maximize the benefit of recreational reading, parents should be encouraged to read more to their young children and to seek out more diverse reading materials.

That leaves us with the question where and when to encourage parents to read to their pre-school aged children? Book stores may be a good place because they have a vested interest in encouraging reading behavior. That’s exactly why we decided to study how we can encourage parents, at brick-and-mortar book stores, to read to their children.

What did we do?

We studied different nudges designed to encourage parents to read to their children by placing promotional materials at point of sale of the children’s department in book stores. The point of sale materials called out the benefits of reading to children, immediately followed by a call to action to buy certain children’s book titles.

For the execution of the experiment, we worked with the American Book Centers in Amsterdam and The Hague, The Netherlands. We created two versions of the texts to call out the benefit of being read to, to see which one works best. Both versions were based on the seminal work by behavioral economics pioneers Kahneman and Tversky into prospect theory and decision making under risk. The researchers suggest that “losses loom larger than gains”, which in other words entails that people assign a bigger decision weight to a loss than to a gain of the same absolute value. Following that line of thought, we reasoned that making parents aware of reading too little would motivate them more to purchase children books than telling them what happens if their children do read a lot.

Based on this loss-aversion theory, we created banners in two versions to be hung over children’s book shelves. To prompt action, the banners suggested parents start reading the Miffy book series, by Dutch author Dick Bruna, to their 4-year-olds, pointing to the collection of Miffy books on the shelves.


The “gain frame” in Amsterdam read: “reading to children from a young age has life-long positive impact on their language skills – start reading today with Miffy”.

The “loss frame” in The Hague read: “children who are not read to from a young age lose out on developing language skills that last a life time – start reading today with Miffy”. The trial period lasted two weeks. We measured the effectiveness of the banners by comparing the sales numbers of Miffy books in the two trial weeks with those in the two weeks prior to the trial.

Did it work?

Our results indicate that, in accordance with the hypothesis, the loss frame works better than the gain frame. The table below shows the sales volume of Miffy book copies in the two consecutive periods in the two stores.


Sales of Miffy book copies across the two stores and periods. # of copies sold in the period without banners # of copies sold in the period with banners Total # of copies sold across the two periods
Gain frame (Amsterdam) 15 6 21
Loss frame (The Hague) 20 25 45
Total 35 31 66


Although the sales numbers are low, we do observe a significant effect of applying the loss and gain frame banners (chi-square 4.2, df= 1, p=.0.04). In the Amsterdam store, which featured the gain frame, the sales volume went down in the trial period, whereas the sales volume picked up in the store in The Hague featuring the loss frame. We conclude that a loss frame is more effective than a gain frame at encouraging parents to read to their children.

What’s next?

We were motivated by the voluminous body of research that demonstrates the many, varied and often life-lasting positive effects that reading to children or getting them to read from an early age have. This motivation is exactly why we studied what type of nudges, in the form of promotional material placed at point of sale in a book store, are effective in encouraging parents to read to their children. The encouragement was phrased in two versions, which had their foundation in psychological theory, and our understanding of that theory helped us to predict which version is more effective. Our results indicate that loss framing of nudges in this context are more effective in getting parents to read to their children. However, the study is not without limitations and we suggest for future research to repeat the study for longer, in a better controlled setting, and at other touchpoints, e.g., an online bookstore, in schools, or a parental support center, to see if the advantage of a loss frame holds. In general, we also support using theories whenever designing nudges and the environment in which people make choices, because it prevents us from making unfounded design decisions and offers an opportunity to improve people’s welfare without limiting their freedom of choice.


The authors wish to thank the management of the American Book Center, with stores in Amsterdam and The Hague, The Netherlands, for the opportunity to run the experiments in their stores.

About the authors

This blog is based on the Master Thesis of Ms. Lára Hilmarsdóttir MscBA (Master of Science in Business Administration): “Applying choice architecture in book retailing to nudge reading behavior”, Rotterdam School of Management at Erasmus University, student number: 344634, date of submission: December 1, 2016. Dr Gerard Loosschilder was Lára’s thesis supervisor and Dr. Dan Schley was co-reader. The copyright of the thesis rests solely with the author, Lára Hilmarsdóttir.

Consulted publications and further readings

Bus, A. G., Van IJzendoorn, M. H., & Pellegrini, A. D. (1995). Joint book reading makes for success in learning to read: a meta-analysis on intergenerational transmission of literacy. Review of Educational Research, 65 (1), 1-21.

Cunningham, A. E., & Stanovich, K. E. (1997). Early reading acquisition and its relation to reading experience and ability 10 years later. Developmental Psychology, 33 (6), 934-945.

Cunningham, A. E., & Stanovich, K. E. (2001). What reading does for the mind. Journal of Direct Instruction, 1 (2), 137-149.

Kahneman, D., & Tversky, A. (1979). Prospect theory: an analysis of decision under risk. Econometrica, 47 (2), 263-292.

Mol, S., E., & Bus, A. G. (2011). To read or not to read: a meta-analysis of print exposure from infancy to early adulthood. Psychological Bulletin, 137 (2), 267-296.

National Endowment for the Arts. (2004). Reading at risk: a survey of literary reading in America. Research Division Report no. 46.

Wilson, R. S., Boyle, P., Yu, L., Barnes, L., Schneider, J., & Bennett, D. (2013). Life-span cognitive activity, neuropathological burden and cognitive aging. Neurology, 81 (4), 314-21.

Why do emotional claims perform bad in claim tests?

Emotional claims usually perform bad in our* claim tests. They are outperformed by functional claims. I asked why this could be to Mr. Daniel Dahan, a brand expert and retired brand planner at D’Arcy, an advertising agency. The explanation is my interpretation of our conversation so any mistake is mine.

A claim is a promise of the brand to the consumer of what the product and its consumption offers after the purchase and upon use. The promise needs to be meaningful; the consumption rewarding. Functional claims promise a functional benefit (the “what”; “I promise this to you”, e.g., “20% more hair removal”). Emotional claims say why this could matter to you (“so that you …”, e.g., “… wear a skirt with more confidence” or “… won’t face a 5 o’clock shadow”). Emotional claims can perform badly if consumers consider them patronizing and condescending. Consumers think “don’t tell me what to do, think or feel; I can decide for myself”. They accept that the brand makes them a promise of what the brand can do for them, but not that the brand tells them what to do, think or feel upon that.

Daniel confirmed it. The idea that claims, functional and emotional, can be written in the form of a top-down ladder, is outdated. Brands are no longer considered higher in the hierarchy.

Brand (“I promise you …”) -> Consumer (“so that you can do/feel …”)

Brands themselves think about themselves as equivalent in the hierarchy. If emotional claims would reflect this equivalence, they would more likely win in our claims tests. It is probably both the structure and the intent of the claim that need to change.

Brand (“I promise you …”)  -> Consumer (“so that you can choose to …”)

The consumer can chose to experience what the brand has to offer. If the consumer wants to, she can. The consumer gets the opportunity to be like them, users of the brand, but the consumer does not accept the brand to be stronger than her.

In fact, Daniel indicated that the relation is now reversed: consumers consider the brand is a guest in their lives that they invite and welcome or not.

Consumer (“others choose to experience …”) -> Brand (“I promise …”)


So a typical mode of communication is that that brands show how other consumers, similar to you, experience the use of the brand. It is a modest position that leaves it to the consumer if, and how, to invite the brand to their life. I would say that this promise is easiest to convey by means of visuals, because text will easily sound condescending.

If the brand misbehaves, it will be ousted and ridiculed. My colleague Paolo Cordella gave me an example of Barilla, a pasta brand in Italy. Barilla always displays the use of the brand in a happy family setting: mother, father and the children at the dinner table. Someone asked an executive if he would display a gay married couple at the dinner table. He said no and he would be happy if this couple would choose another pasta brand. His answer caused a lot of responses on social media ridiculing the brand and the executive.

The old idea was that brands are aspirational and give the consumer a goal or promise that is away from the consumer’s reality. If you’re fat and insecure, you will be slim and confident; if you are hairy, you will be smooth and silky. It made the impression that reality is bad and the aspiration is good. However, the aspiration condemns reality which makes it condescending. The consumer prefers having a choice how to experience the product in her own, realistic reality, and chose how to integrate it. The portrait can dramatize the experience by painting a picture of people in a similar situation and integrate the brand like they did; not for the others or the brand to be stronger than me.

One thing I learned from the conversation is that emotional claims can work if they manage to express the expected relation between the brand and the consumer.

*P.s. I wrote this blog while working at SKIM, a market research agency. So “our claim tests” refers to the tests we performed at this agency.

Just doing nothing

It’s one of those last summer Saturdays: the sun is out and I am sitting in the yard enjoying doing nothing. Well, not entirely nothing: I am thinking back about the soccer match this morning when I was a proud parent because my son scored. For the rest I felt totally “inert”. It reminded me of a business discussion we had earlier this week, about inertia. Inertia means that people don’t act. Inertia is a common concept in telecom and utility markets (“gas water licht”). It is not an appreciated concept in market research. I remembered a particular instance where a study showed that none of the tested promotions would make a difference; our participants wouldn’t switch contracts regardless of what our client could do to make them. We panicked, because clients don’t like to hear that. But then the panic subsided and we thought “well, perhaps our participants think that the promotions are not good enough and actively choose not to act upon them.” Or they did just like I do this afternoon: just sit back, relax and do nothing.