Safety symbol comprehension: Effects of symbol type, familiarity, and age

Holly E. Hancock, Wendy A. Rogers, Derek Schroeder, Arthur D. Fisk

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


A new procedure for evaluating symbol comprehension, the phrase generation procedure, was assessed with 52 younger and 52 older adults. Participants generated as many phrases as came to mind when viewing 40 different safety symbols (hazard alerting, mandatory action, prohibition, and information symbols). Symbol familiarity was also assessed. Comprehension rates for both groups were lower than the 85% level recommended by the American National Standards Institute. Moreover, older participants' comprehension was significantly worse than younger participants', and the older adults also generated significantly fewer phrases. Generally, prohibition symbols were comprehended best and hazard alerting symbols worst. In addition, symbol familiarity was positively correlated with symbol comprehension. These findings indicate that important safety information depicted on signs and household products may be misunderstood if presented in symbolic form. Furthermore, certain types of symbols may be better understood (e.g., prohibition symbols) than other types (e.g., hazard alerting symbols) by both younger and older individuals. These findings signify the utility of the phrase generation procedure as a method for evaluating symbol comprehension, particularly when it is not possible or desirable to provide contextual information. Actual or potential applications of this research include using the phrase generation approach to identify poorly comprehended symbols, including identification of critical confusions that may arise when processing symbolic information.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)183-195
Number of pages13
JournalHuman Factors
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 2004
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Human Factors and Ergonomics
  • Applied Psychology
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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