Semiotics and Unconscious Communication in Safety

Semiotics and Unconscious Communication in Safety

Some really interesting recent articles by Hayden Collins – One of his previous posts, How Semiotics Affects The Return To Work Process, generated some great discussion.

The Semiotics of the RTW Industry


imageThe current approach to rehabilitation and return to work is based on the reductionist medical model where the human body is symbolic of a machine comprised of divided parts. Wellness is then considered to be the absence of physical – and occasionally mental – symptoms, and treatment for illness involves the systematic elimination or management of these symptoms based on a predetermined treatment plan.  This reductionist model does not recognise the individual as a whole person who is part of a family, community and culture, rather as a set of symptoms[1].

Recovering from injury and illness and returning to work is multifaceted. Effective rehabilitation requires a holistic perspective towards health and wellbeing, taking into consideration the physical, psychological, spiritual and social factors of the individual. The individual must be understood in their entirety, and as all factors are inextricably linked, if one is not being attended to, the others will certainly be affected[2].

This paper will argue that labels used in return to work Guidance[3] – in particular ‘injured worker’ – and the failure to acknowledge the importance of social connectedness, frames the return to work process as a reductionist and mechanical system that does not recognise the complexity of human beings or the significance of a holistic approach towards successful rehabilitation. I will also show how this same language creates a discourse of control, power and dehumanisation, that essentially alienates and isolates the recovering individual, damages effectiveness of relationships and return to work outcomes, and increases the likelihood that the recovering individual will experience secondary psychological conditions such as depression and anxiety.

Labels or stereotypes shape how we see the world. They unconsciously affect our perception of objects, nature, individuals – including ourselves – social communities and cultures, and subsequently influence our relationships and behaviour. Labels simplify the complexity of the world through categorisation. Once a label is in place it is extremely difficult to remove[4]. When a label is applied to an individual, they are seen as an object – something to be used, possessed, fixed or controlled[5]. The uniqueness and humanness of the individual is lost – along with it the opportunity for building relationships based on care, trust and respect – and enables the exploitation and exclusion of the individual that has been labelled[6]. Labelling affects everyone; even physicians who have taken the ‘Hippocratic Oath’ unconsciously treat their patients differently depending on the label and stereotype that has been applied. With kind and friendly personal treatment provided to those who are perceived as having no responsibility for the injury and impersonal treatment to those seen as negligent with no excuse[7]. I will now deconstruct the label ‘Injured Worker’ and explore how it can influence the return to work process and the potential social and psychological implications of its use.

When the label of ‘Injured’ is applied to an individual, it positions them…… READ MORE HERE >>>>>>>

Communicating to the Unconscious


imageIt’s a misconception that consciousness initiates action. Norretranders supports this when he says “Man is not primarily conscious. Man is primarily non-conscious. The idea of a conscious I as housekeeper of everything that comes in and goes out of one is an illusion”.[1]

In this paper I will explain the relationship between consciousness and unconsciousness in decision making, how priming and semiotics influence unconscious decision making processes, the role of consciousness and unconsciousness in automaticity, and how a failure to understand these concepts will result in a limited capacity to understand and manage risk.

Experiments show that consciousness’ capacity is smaller than that of unconsciousness. Unconsciousness processes 11 million bits of information per second. In contrast, consciousness processes 40 bits per second. Consciousness is limited to the amount of information it can process, meaning actions are determined by information of which we have not been consciously aware. The decision is made before we can consciously rationalise it.[2] Without unconscious processing, swift decision making would be difficult. If consciousness initiated action, it would take approximately 4 years to process information that unconsciousness could process in 10 minutes.[3]

By accepting that decision making is primarily unconscious, it’s accepted that actions and decisions can be subliminally influenced by environmental stimuli.[4] The role of priming and semiotics is critical when understanding and managing risk.

Moskowitz and Gusundheit define priming as “…the passive, subtle, and unobtrusive activation of relevant mental representations by external, environmental stimuli, such that people are not and do not become aware of the influence exerted by those stimuli”.[5] Priming occurs when stimuli is strong enough to be processed unconsciously but is too subtle to be processed consciously. The stimuli affect decision making without the individual being aware of its influence.[6]

Anything that can be picked up by the senses can potentially prime an individual and influence decision making. This includes the sights we see, the odours we smell, and the sounds we hear.[7] How we relate to the stimuli will affect the action we take. Experiments on priming have shown that the faint odour of cleaning fluid will prime subjects to perform cleaning activities[8]. In another study, college students who were primed with stereotypes of the elderly were found to walk more slowly and have a reduced memory.[9]

‘Zero harm’ and ‘safety is a choice’ primes intolerance and absolutism, diminishing the learning opportunities from risk. This can lead to a culture of underreporting of incidents, and blame and punishment for those who do get injured. Language such as ‘get the job done’ and ‘can do’ encourages shortcuts, rushing, and deviation from standard process. Organisations that understand the role of priming in decision making use language that will positively prime individuals. Words such as ‘learning’ and ‘respect’ humanise safety and stimulate a richer understanding of risk, an understanding that would be lost should the illusion of conscious and rational control over decision making be accepted.

Unconscious decision making means that everything has significance. Not only is it critical that words are carefully chosen to minimise unwanted priming, It is equally important that misinterpretations are mitigated through consideration of the target audience and method of communication. An understanding of semiotics supports the communication of risk.

Semiotics is how we give meaning to signs. We live in a world of signs and interpretations vary between individuals. Meanings are not rudimentary; we create codes and conventions to ascribe meaning. This process occurs without conscious awareness.[10] People can react to the same sign differently, depending on their culture or past experiences.[11] The word ‘apple’ could represent food, health, knowledge or technology. The way signs are presented to an individual can also influence how that sign is interpreted.


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