Its All In The Sign

Its All In The Sign

A brilliant essay by Max Geyer, submitted as part of his study for the Graduate Certificate in the Psychology of Risk – published here with his permission:

Depositphotos_10767376_xsNorretranders (1998) provides ample evidence that the unconscious plays a major role in communication. This paper looks at the critical nature of unconscious communication in relation to understanding and managing risk. It uses the example of a road sign as a symbol which is used to unconsciously transmit to us a large amount of information related to a high risk, everyday activity and so enable us to quickly and efficiently recognise and manage the risks associated with driving. It concludes that if we fail to acknowledge the role of unconscious communication we risk overloading our conscious mind, drastically reducing our ability to manage risk.

Making sense of the world around us is facilitated through the recognition and understanding of the meaning of the images, sounds, words, smells, tastes, symbols, actions and objects which make up our surroundings. Although these factors may have the same or different meanings, depending on the standard adopted and how individuals filter them to form their particular model of the world (Chomsky cited in Charvet, 1995, p. 4), they are collectively studied under the discipline of semiotics and are identified as the signs which enable us to think (Chandler, 2007, p. 13).

When dealing with risk, it is often critical that we make very rapid decisions. This is what Gigerenzer (1999, pp. 75) calls ‘fast and frugal’ decision making. Humans create heuristics (micro rule based on experience) to make these quick decisions. Being able to quickly identify and absorb the signs of danger enables us to prepare for and take action, hopefully in time to avoid the danger.

Consider for example, a person driving along a Tasmanian mountain road who is faced with a road sign. The sign meets the Australian road sign standard, it is coloured yellow, is equal sided, two dimensional, has a diamond shape and displays in its centre, a black arrow curved sharply to the right to form a “U” shape.

The sign has been placed by the road builder as a communication device; a graphic symbol of the designed and built shape of the road immediately ahead. It highlights to a driver a series of risks associated with continuing to drive that particular stretch of road, particularly at high speed.

For those of us who are adept at driving on Australian mountain roads we recognise the need to be cautious (yellow with black indicates caution) in that we are shortly to be faced with a sharp switchback to our right. It also tells us that we may need to slow down using the vehicle’s brakes and gears, and prepare to turn the vehicle in the direction of the arrow taking care to not turn too sharply that we go off the road, or too shallowly that we fail to take the turn.

We know to assign that meaning from our driver training and conditioning from experience on similar roads with similar signs. The message contained in the symbol is the result of a great deal of information which, in the interests of brevity, has been discarded and which is referred to as ‘exformation’ (Norretranders, 1998, p. 92). The alternative to discarding the information would be to replace the symbol with a sign, large enough for the driver to read while potentially travelling at speed, containing all of the information related to the sign and its purpose, plus reference to the road design conditions, the reasons the designer believed we needed warning, the meaning assigned to the sign’s colours and arrow, and what our reaction should be to the sign. The evidence indicates that such a sign would ‘flood’ the conscious and the message would likely be lost (Long & Long, 2012, p. Xi). Such a sign would be completely impractical.

Our unconscious mind plays a critical role in managing our understanding of the symbol and also in managing our response to it. The risks identified by the engineer and encoded in the sign are very quickly recognised and an appropriate response can be managed equally quickly. At the time we see the sign we are not knowledgeable of the process used to develop the exformation, and we also don’t consciously consider the entirety of its meaning. We notice the sign and react. We slow the vehicle and manoeuvre it around the bend. The mechanism which triggers our automatic response to the symbol, without having to recall all of the exformation, is itself unconscious (Bargh & Chartrand 1999, p, 463). Further, as experienced drivers, we don’t consciously operate the controls to manage the vehicle’s progress; we operate in automaticity (Bargh cited in Kazdin, 2000, p.348). But it is the unconscious message behind the engineer’s symbol that triggers these responses.

If this discernment of the risks, indicated by the symbol, did not occur in our unconscious we would be required to keep all of the exformation, related to the sign, in our conscious mind. Further, all other communication signs, and navigation information related to our journey, would have to be similarly treated. Together this would amount to having to keep a vast amount of information continuously in our conscious mind just to manage all of the risks along our journey.

Miller (cited in Charvet 1995, p. 4, and in Norretranders 1998, pp. 130-132) tells us that it is virtually impossible to keep more than seven items in our conscious mind at any one time. However, while it is possible to bundle some information into logical groups and apply a symbol to the bundles (e.g. a road sign) as a smart way to remember things (Norretranders 1998, p. 132) we still can’t hold any more than seven bundles in our conscious. We are in constant danger of being flooded with information rendering it almost impossible to discern any associated risks.

Without our unconscious and the unconscious communication of symbols we would not be capable of holding all the risk information that the road builder wants to communicate with us such that we can successfully negotiate the road. The road builder’s use of symbols, as a means to unconsciously communicate with us the risks associated with the road’s design, reduces the flood of information and enables an efficient method to manage those risks. It clearly demonstrates the critical nature of unconscious communication in the understanding and management of risk.


Bargh, J. A., (2000), Automaticity, in Kazdin, A. E., (ed) Encyclopedia of Psychology, Vol. 1. Pp. 347-348, American Psychology Association, Oxford University Press, New York, viewed 1st September 2014, <>

Bargh, J. A., & Chartrand, T. L. (1999), The Unbearable Automaticity of Being, in American Psychologist, the American Psychology Association, Vol. 54, No. 7, viewed 29th August 2014, <> (the complete URL to this article is too long to insert here)

Chandler, D., (2007), Semiotics: The Basics, 2nd ed. Routledge, London and New York.

Charvet, S. R., (1995), Words That Change Minds: Mastering the Language of Influence, Kendall/Hunt Publishing Co., Dubuque, Iowa.

Claxton, G., (2005), The Wayward Mind: An Intimate History of the Unconscious, Little, Brown Book Group, London.

Gigerenzer, G., Todd, P., and the ABC Research Group. (1999) Simple Heuristics That Make us Smart, Oxford. London.

Long, R., & Long, J., (2012) Risk Makes Sense: Human Judgement and Risk, Scotoma Press, Kambah ACT.

Norretranders, T., (1991), The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down to Size, Penguin Books, New York.

Max Geyer
Max is currently completing a Graduate Certificate in the Social Psychology of Risk; has a Graduate Certificate of Management (HR Management); Diplomas of Business – Auditing (OH&S, Environment & Quality); a Certificate in Coaching Skills; a Certificate in Emotional Intelligence Assessment & Coaching; a Certificate IV in Workplace Training & Assessment and a Certificate in Return to Work Coordination. With over 35 years experience at operational and management levels in industry, including the Pastoral Industry, General Industry, Mining Industry and Consulting; Max delights in bringing that experience and knowledge to his interactions with Viamax clients in order to help make a positive difference to their lives.

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