Hacker News new | comments | show | ask | jobs | submit login
“Warning” signs at historical sites tell visitors to relax and enjoy themselves (twentytwowords.com)
277 points by vog on June 4, 2013 | hide | past | web | favorite | 83 comments

Signs say something interesting about the herd mentality in people.

For example, psychologist Robert Cialdini did an experiment a few years ago to get people to be more respectful of public parks. He found that negative messages actually made people more likely to take items from the park (which they weren't supposed to do). [1]

Interestingly, the most effective way to change people's behavior was to leverage peer pressure, making them feel like everyone around them was already performing the desired action. E.g. "98% of hikers don't remove rocks; please don't be the 2%"

I'm not saying these two cases are identical, but to me what makes the U.K. signs so effective is that they suggest, in a subtle way, "Hey, you should have a good time because everyone else is enjoying themselves."

[1] http://www.freakonomics.com/2012/06/21/riding-the-herd-menta...

In the back of NYC taxis there is a PSA that often plays about wearing your seatbelt. In it, the rider is urged to buckle up and is told that "65 Percent Of New York Cab Riders Don't Buckle Up". The message is intended as 'do better New York!' but it always comes across as validation for not choosing to wear a seatbelt.

It always reminds me to not be the median dumbass, as NYC taxis used to be one of the few remaining places I didn't put mine on.

Then again I'm an elitist prick, so perhaps this wouldn't have the desired effect on the median user.

When I was a kid I remember the older kids used to drop litter on purpose, not because it was too much effort to put it in the bin but to show how rebellious they were.

If you put up something that looks like an authority that will try and punish you if you disobey then you look brave and smart by disobeying it and getting away with it.

Wondering how effective is the following sign plastered all over Dublin: http://www.flickr.com/photos/37488984@N08/3738757617/

Well, it made me want to litter. I'd say it's effective.

Cialdini's book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, is easily one of the most interesting books I've ever read. It's not long and it's an easy read too -- I'd highly recommend reading it:


The UK government had a Behavioural Insights Team, also known colloquially as the "Nudge unit".

> When the unit advised the HMRC to change the wording on income tax letters, for example, it resulted in an extra £200million being collected on time. Another experiment with the British Courts Service used personalised text messages to remind people to pay their fines on time. The result? Bailiff interventions were reduced by 150,000, saving around £30million.


Quite relevant Pecha Kucha by Dan Pink related to signs: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=9...

A fun sight is going to Tokyo and seeing huge amounts of bikes parked in front of "no bike parking here please" signs.

Each week my municipality sends out an email the night before garbage collection stating which items are to be picked up the next day (e.g. blue box, garbage, bulk items, garden bags).

Historically it was a friendly, we're-all-in-this-together sort of email sharing information about what helps the recycling process go most smoothly, maximizes taxpayer return, etc. Recently they had a change of responsible parties, and now the new emails are full of stark, accusatory statements of absolutes and rules -- the classic underlined/bold/italic "DO NOT" type list of exclusions.

It is absolutely remarkable the effect this has. Suddenly we're not all in this together, but it's factions working against each other. I and my fellow taxpayers are now suddenly trouble in someone's life.

I've always been against hostile communications where they aren't necessary, but this has absolutely opened my eyes to how much of an impact this sort of adversarial approach can have. It's purely an anecdotal datapoint, but it really struck me.

People are really ridiculously similar to dogs and other animals; the response to negative reinforcement or negative punishment is at worst uniformly negative, or at best inconsistent and unpredictable. Positive reinforcement results in a positive behavioral change without negative side-effects. Truly the best way to change behavior, yet people still believe that negativity is necessary, especially in the corporate and beaurocratic world. Mind-bogglingly uninformed, to put it lightly.

*edit: sorry for the comparison to dogs (I have some background in animal training); but I hope at least the connection of corporate policy to empirical behavioral science and psychology isn't the cause of the downvoting... anyway if you're interested, a great book is "Don't Shoot the Dog" by Karen Pryor. And on the business side, W. Edwards Deming's seminal work "Out of the Crisis." Essentially both show a proven way of dealing with any living thing that's based on positive behavior and proven statistical methods and science rather than outdated and misguided beliefs about punishment and motivation that are now known to be less effective in the long term. Simple psychology, statistics, and science.

Just to get pedantic, positive reinforcement means you are adding something to the environment with the goal of affecting behavior. Negative reinforcement means something has been removed from the environment to affect behavior. Not the same thing as reward and punishment. A negatively worded message is still technically positive reinforcement.

I'm not sure if you can consider a sign reinforcement though, because it is usually presented before the desired or undesired behavior occurs....


Yep, I'm fully aware of the behavioral theory behind it and the four quadrants. To the layman it's easier to talk about Reinforcement versus Punishment alone, since the two main branches share most of the common effects, and of which (at least in animal training) Positive Reinforcement with cues (clicker) appears to be the most effective. I realize I might have mixed them up above, sorry about that.

I actually think about positive wording versus negative wording to be a prime example of punishment versus reinforcement; with negative wording the interpretation (mine anyway, without much analysis) is a pre-emptive punishment directed directly at me for an undesired behavior that is an option, whereas a positively worded sign is pre-emptive positive reinforcement for good behavior that I might consider. I get rewarded/positively reinforced for good thought versus punished for bad thoughts, and it turns out the punishment (and side-effects thereof) applies whether or not I actually had the thoughts or not (citation needed, etc.). Really interesting to think about.

I'm helping take care of a preschool-aged kid with a brain injury and an unstable family situation. He has a lot of behavioral issues.

The most success we've had has been through "Positive Behavior Intervention" ( http://www.pbis.org/ ). The basic philosophy is to identify the value someone gets out of their negative behavior, set positive expectations for behaviors that provide the same value, and then provide immediate positive feedback whenever you see the positive behavior.

The adversarial approach, by comparison, tended to lead to escalating problems. It made me his enemy instead of his ally and advocate.

Even explicitly knowing I was looking at signs telling me to "relax and enjoy myself," I found myself interpreting the sign as the warning/restriction counterpart message until my second or third (even more careful) reading.

It's a lot like the phenomenon where if you include and and twice in a row, you'll likely not realize the typo.

This is remarkable, I initially thought you'd typo'd your typo and had to do a double take to spot it.

Isn't the brain a wonderful and scary thing.

that first one took me the longest.. i kept reading it as 'keep off the grass'. really confused me as to why that was there among all the other more pleasant signs..?

it was only after going through all the others that i got it. seems my brain is conditioned that in the presence of 'keep' and 'grass' i should remain off.

Yeah, that conditioning is probable. And scary. Just think how many more signs/words/images/emotions are hardwired in your brain. Scary.

i thought it was more of an issue

issue when you put them on line breaks.

I think the layout has to look natural, because that one didn't work for me.

Partly due to big line breaks, partly due to short lines of text, and partly due to short overall text length.

"I found myself interpreting the sign as the warning/restriction counterpart message"

Couldn't you just read the whole sign properly on the first try? Why did you glance over the rest of it? I think that's your fault - and our society these days - and not the fault of the signs, which were cute and funny.

I once made a point of reading & counting every sign around a bus door. There were 18 signs. Somehow I'm not surprised nobody reads any of them: so often irrelevant for all practical purposes, we've been trained by the signs to not read them. Ergo I won't fault anyone for following their warning-sign-induced preprogramming to give warning-like signs little more than a cursory glance, even when admonished to really pay attention this time.

You think the problem with society is our pattern recognition, and exclusion behaviour? A result of being inundated with perpetual signage which is irrelevant, or inane?

Since this is a result of society, why are you getting all blamey?

"Yeah, that conditioning is probable. And scary. Just think how many more signs/words/images/emotions are hardwired in your brain. Scary."

I'm sorry, I didn't want to sound that negatively (as other comments on this level indicate I did).

The thing is that I understand why someone would glance over something twice before reading it at last. And I'm not going to shoot people who do this. But I still don't think that's a good thing to do, a good behavioral pattern.

In this example, seriously, why didn't you read the sign on the first try? Probably because, as you quoted, you were expecting the sign to be boring shit, not worth reading. But hey, you were told that it is not shit beforehand! So, to have trouble with reading it, you must have: a) not believed that the signs are legitimate content; or b) struggled and failed against your reflexive rejection of the signs as garbage.

The latter option is more probable, I think. You tried to overcome your conditioning and pattern-matching defaults, and finally you succeeded. But you could succeed earlier, had you exercised! You could try to play with optical illusions or do puzzles, or something like this. And after a while you would have no problem at all with recognising the signs in this article.

What I wanted to say in my previous posts is that this lack of ability to ignore reflexes, see and (sometimes try to) understand is a very good thing to develop for yourself, and that unfortunately people are less and less aware that this is the case (scary!), because what they come in contact with is constantly getting larger, cruder and more obvious.

Thanks for pointing this out!

I didn't find the original source when I submitted it to HN. Unfortunately, it is too late now to edit my submission for the improved link.

Seeing the signs in context is much better than the designs by themselves.

The latter pictures (scroll right) also show the signs in context.

:/ Why does it scroll sideways?

The 'Reserved' sign is the only one I'd object to. It's likely to be read from afar, and never approached close enough to get the joke. Even then, it would be easy to reason that 'fun and games' was an in-joke from whichever party made the reservation.

True but only if it's the first sign you come across. If I'd read any of the other signs beforehand I'd have laughed and made a special effort to inspect the 'reserved' sign.

This is a really cool idea. I like how it plays on the idea of NT properties being boring fusty places where you go for rubbish school trips. I don't know if it's a function of age but I'm actually quite excited about visiting a National Trust property on the weekend if the weather stays nice. I encourage others to do the same and support a really worthwhile charity.

Funny, but I don't want bright signs all over the place. If I go to see some place, I want to see the place, not some smart aleck's stupid bright signs all over.

Why hate on light hearted fun? You sound a bit like a guy in his eighties yelling at kids to stop playing on the grass.

I think it's somewhere in-between. He's not really hating on the fun, he's hating that it has to invade a scenic place with unnatural signs.

I can't blame him--I like to see things as-intended. No trash in the woods, no modern equipment at historical sites, etc.

On the subject of historical sites... We did a tour of an ancient monument on Orkney last week only to discover that thugs had broken in and scrawled graffiti over the inside of a 5,000 year old building:



I don't know why, but reading those signs made me feel all warm and fuzzy. :)

The problem for me is I would think it was a spoof by some (forgive the apparently hated word) hipster designer. I'd think something like "this was made to 'subvert' the whatever, but we're actually supposed to stay off the grass".

As soon as I saw the large "KEEP GRASS" text I would have immediately interpreted it as "keep off the grass", I wouldn't have read the two smaller words in between.


I don't see the mobile phone one as being such a problem, as it's green, which indicates permissiveness.

True, but it's rare to see a sign saying you can use your phone. Almost always it's telling you not too.

STRICTLY speaking you should stay on the path, however, we also encourage a spot of exploring too! Have a wonderful day.

The grammar nerd in me is grinding his teeth.

What part of the sentence do you think is ungrammatical?

1. It's a run-on sentence. There should be a period, or at least semicolon, before “however”. Using a proper conjunction like “but” is possible too, but then the comma following it needs to go.

2. Putting both “also” and “too” in the second clause is redundant.

I agree with #1, but I don't think the also/too redundancy is ungrammatical. It's superfluous but syntactically valid.

That's true, but it also has a grammar error: There should be a comma "," before "too".

It was all good until I got to the one about keeping your mobile on for Twitter.

Take a break from the dull monotony of 140 characters, please!

I think this is a fantastic idea. Historical sites, and history in general, are the collective property of everyone, held in trust by the historical community, be it historians in universities or tour guides at museums. We preserve history to keep it alive for subsequent generations, so everyone experience where we came from and who we are. What's the point of preserving history if it is going to be locked up in a stuffy old archive? Public engagement in history is such an important part of keeping history alive, since if no one cares about it, why should it be preserved?

It should be noted that the National Trust is also concerned with the natural environment as well as historic sites. For example, their Enterprise/Project Neptune campaign is focussed on securing the British coastline.

What's nice about the NT is that they're not an in-you-face political campaign group, they just go about conservation on a daily basis.

Paternalism goes full-circle

Last time I was in Paris, I noticed new signs on the lawns of the Luxembourg Gardens advising people that they are now permitted to walk on the grass. They were not nearly as playful as these signs.

This is a terrible idea. There is this whole thing called familiarity, and most people will interpret this signs negatively because they won't stop to read the small text.

I hope this doesn't spread.

In the UK, the kind of people who visit National Trust properties are the kind of people who carefully read all the signage and actually listen to the tour guide.

This idea is delightful.

Maybe, I don't know what is the target of this thing, but most definitely it wouldn't work on a general touristic place, for example.

This is a work of art, at most. Not an example of real world usability.

"...most definitely it wouldn't work on a general touristic place"? That's a pretty strong statement to use with no proof.

The sites that the National Trust maintains are "general touristic places". It's the UK's largest membership organization, with a membership of 3.7 million people in 2010. It owns over 200 historic houses. It owns more than 630,000 acres, nearly 1.5% of the entire land mass of England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, and owns or protects roughly 20% of the coastline.

One of its properties -- just one, and remember that it owns over 200 houses and 630,000 acres of land -- had nearly 440,000 visitors in its 2009-10 fiscal year.

National Trust properties are most definitely "general touristic places" at which these signs are working.

It's the UK. It's a tongue-in-cheek play on the familiarity.

Considering how popular the campaign has been online, I'd say it's an outstanding idea.

Of course the campaign has been popular online. It's all about demographics; the kind of people that find this online are those that will usually like it.

Now think of a not-so-educated 60 year old tourist going to see a nice park on his vacation.

It is indeed about the demographics - I don't think the age is a great factor, but it fits UK culture very well. In fact, its innate Britishness could well appeal to older age brackets more.

It's not a campaign to convince elderly tourists to return to the park.

It's a campaign to convince people like me, a National Trust member who's half the age of the person in your example, that the National Trust attractions aren't all stuffy and boring and the NT wants you to actually explore and enjoy them.

Good then, they are catering to a specific demographic while it's clear it may mislead and be unclear to other.

I still think it's not a good idea, and the fact that it's a likable idea doesn't fix that for me.

I think you do the elderly citizens of Britain a disservice by assuming they will be confused and helpless in the face of some light hearted signage.

I really like it. I guess the people who've designed were aware of this problem and solved it. Perhaps there's a really obviously tounge-in-cheek sign at the beginning, so people expect all of the signs to be.

Unauthorized personnel only.

I live in a tourist destination city and see people taking pictures from boring spots. I've considered placing or lobbying to place small signs or markings for spots that make extraordinary photo opportunities.

If you need to tell people to relax and have fun ("Mandatory fun day"), it's an indication that you have a more fundamental problem. It's probably better to address that instead of making playful signs.

I think you're missing the point. This is not about "mandatory fun", it's about recognizing the runaway restrictiveness of public parks and historical sites that has resulted in people expecting that common activities will be prohibited. It's poking fun at the uptight reputation that such places have, and attempting to reverse the trend by loosening those irrational restrictions.

Exactly. If I went to a place such as the one with the "Keep on the grass" sign, and didn't see any signs, I would actually pretty much assume that anyway. Because it's just so common that I expect it to be the default stance at such locations.

Not very friendly to visitors who have a less-than-firm grasp of English.

Arguably no signs with words are.

I disagree; a "RESERVED for a private party" sign is effective even if you only understand the first word, and it's certainly not misleading.

Whereas a "RESERVED for fun and games" sign can easily confuse someone who understands the first word (perhaps they've seen it on other English signs before) but not "fun" nor "games", and they'll be misled into thinking they're not allowed to go into that area.

So if you were in a foreign land and knowing only a few words I saw a sign that said:

         mvw pxx
What would you think?

The graphics design is lovely. Has anyone an idea what typeface is it?

It's in line with the National Trust's (http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/) corporate identity, and the font is custom for the Trust


It's a cute idea but I would hope they'd remove the signs once they get the point across, because it's visual clutter. It'd be better to have no signs at all, eventually.

That is so refreshing.

Great signs! This is a better way to invoke the "feel good" attitude for visitors. When people see signs that say no loitering, no littering, and the like, it actually does put the idea in the back of that persons head. No one actually likes to be told what to do and that is why these signs get ignored.

Looks 'shopped.

You should give up on 'thought' and try and steal better cliches.

"I always have a quotation for everything - it saves original thinking." Dorothy L. Sayers

Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact