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Research on the impact of symbols

  • The use of a highly recognisable symbol, one that is deeply imbued with meaning, constitutes an extremely clever and effective means of creating greater awareness and faster reaction times from drivers.
The Brainy Science Behind the Bike Symbol

At Brainy Bike Lights®, even before the research by the University of Oxford had confirmed our hypothesis about the bike symbol light, we’d also been given huge confidence in our invention from the findings of other scientific research which had demonstrated the power and cognitive efficiency of symbols as warning signs.  The purpose of warnings is fourfold 1

  • to create safety
  • provide information
  • influence behaviour
  • act as reminders

Well-known symbols are processed fast and intuitively by what scientists call our System One thinking. So we already knew that a bike light based on a bike symbol would create a simple and clear warning message for drivers vs a traditional red or white bike light. Our bike symbol is effectively a cognitive short cut.

Here are a few of the key findings about the impact of symbols:

  • Symbols can be identified at a greater distance 2
  • Symbols can be identified more rapidly, and more accurately when seen at a glance 3
  • Symbols are seen better under adverse viewing conditions 4
  • Symbols are understood by people who do not read the language of the country in which they are used 5
  • Symbols are exceptionally valuable tools for communicating warning information 6
  • Symbols increase the conspicuousness of a warning 7
  • Symbols facilitate warning comprehension 8
  • Symbols have been shown to enhance the memory of a warning 9

In the context of an illuminated bike light this research suggested that our bike symbol light could offer even greater advantages:

  • Increasing cognitive conspicuity – that is, the symbol allows for rapid identification (of the bike and cyclist) and triggers quicker top down processing
  • It’s a highly activated concept so other road users are likely to react faster to it
  • The bike symbol has the potential to initiate positive behavioural priming, in this context making drivers more conscious of cyclists’ potential movements as well as priming drivers’ own likely evasive/protective reactions in relation to cyclists. Priming (or activation of any sort) of knowledge in memory makes it more accessible and therefore more influential in processing new stimuli
  • Creating greater spatial awareness of cyclists amongst drivers and enhanced ability to judge critical perspective/distance.

1 K. Laughery, M. Wogalter. Designing Effective Warnings, Chapter 8, Reviews of Human Factors and Ergonomics 2006.2 R.J. Jacobs, A.W. Johnston, and B.L. Cole. The visibility of alphabetic and symbolic traffic signs. Australian Road Research, Vol. 5, 1975, pp. 68-86.3 T.J.B. Kline, L.M. Ghali, D.W. Kline, and S. Brown. Visibility distance of highway signs among young, middle-aged and older observers: icons are better than text. Human Factors, Vol. 32, 1990, pp. 609-619.4 G.Ells and R.E. Dewar. Rapid comprehension of verbal and symbolic traffic sign messages. Human Factors, Vol. 21, 1979, pp. 161-168.5 M. Wogalter, V. Conzola and T. Smith-Jackson, Research-based Guidelines for warning design and evaluation, Applied Ergonomics 33, 2002.6 K. Laughery, M. Wogalter. Designing Effective Warnings,Chapter 8, Reviews of Human Factors and Ergonomics 2006.7 M. Wogalter, V. Conzola and T. Smith-Jackson, Research-based Guidelines for warning design and evaluation, Applied Ergonomics 33, 2002.R.E. Dewar, Design and Evaluation of Public Information Symbols, Visual Information for Everyday Use: Design and Research Perspectives, 1999.9 Young and Wogalter, Memory of Instruction Manual Warnings: Effect of Pictorial Icons and Conspicuous Print, Proceedings of the Human Factors Society, 1988.