|Don’t warn nonspecifically!|
Posted on March 21, 2011 by Katja Grace| 13 Comments
I hate safety warnings. It’s not that I’m hurt by someone out there’s condescending belief that I can’t work out whether irons are for drying children. And I welcome the endless mental accretion of terrifying facts about obscure ways one can die. What really bothers me is that safety warnings often contain no information except ‘don’t do X’.
In a world covered in advice not to do X, and devoid of information about what will happen if you do X, except it will be negative sometimes, it is hard and irritating to work out when it is appropriate to do X. Most things capable of being costly are a good idea some of the time. And if you were contemplating doing X, you probably have some reason. On top of that, as far as I can tell many of the warnings are about effects so weak that if you wanted to do X for some reason, that would almost certainly overwhelm the reason not to. But since all you are ever told is not to do X, you are never quite sure whether you are being warned off some trivial situation where a company haven’t actually tested whether their claims about their product still apply, or protected from a genuine risk.
My kettle came with a warning that if I ever boil it dry, I should replace it. Is this because it will become liable to explode? Because it might become discoloured? My sandwich meat came with a warning not to eat it after seven days. Presumably this is because they can’t guarantee a certain low level of risk after that, but since I don’t know what that level is, it’s not so useful to me. If I have a lot else to eat I will want a lower level of risk than if I’m facing the alternative of having to go shopping right now or of fainting from hunger. Medical warnings are very similar.
Perhaps it’s sensible to just ignore warnings when they conflict much with your preconceptions or are costly. In that case, how am I worse off than if there just weren’t warnings? How can I complain about people not giving me enough information? What obligation do they have to give me any?
There is the utilitarian argument that telling me would be much more beneficial than it is costly. But besides that, I think I am often worse off than if warning givers just shut up most of the time. Ignoring warnings is distracting and psychologically costly, even if you have decided that that’s the best way to treat them. There is a definite drop in sandwich enjoyableness if it’s status as ‘past its use by date’ lingers in your mind. It’s hard to sleep after being told that you should rush to an emergency room.
I presume there are heaps of pointless warnings because they avoid legal trouble. But this doesn’t explain why they all contain so little information. It is more effort to add information of course. But such a minuscule bit more: if you think people shouldn’t do X, presumably you have a reason already, you just have to write it down. If you can’t write it down, you probably shouldn’t be warning. An addition of a few words to the standard label or sign can’t be noticeably expensive. For more important risks, knowing the reason should encourage people to follow the advice more because they can distinguish them from unimportant risks. For unimportant risks, knowing the reason should encourage people to not follow the advice more, allowing them to enjoy the product or whatever, while leaving the warning writer safe from legal action. Win win! What am I missing?
Chris Chang | March 21, 2011 at 2:49 pm | Reply
People are more likely to read signs with fewer words than those with more words. Also, as Zac implied, a considerable fraction of the population does not care about the reason for obeying a particular warning. (We’ll leave aside the ethics of deliberately underserving this subpopulation for another day.)
Possible solution: short warnings in large type, followed by short-as-possible justification in (usually) smaller type.
jghaines | March 21, 2011 at 3:55 pm | Reply
I was assuming it was for legal reasons. If you give a reason, then you open yourself up to more interpretation and counter-argument. If you do feed the seagulls and something else bad happens, then perhaps you can sue.
axa | March 21, 2011 at 4:55 pm | Reply
have you read marginal revolution lately?
maybe warnings are not about safety, it’s about showing that the warning-giver cares.
Sigivald | March 21, 2011 at 6:23 pm | Reply
I presume there are heaps of pointless warnings because they avoid legal trouble. But this doesn’t explain why they all contain so little information. It is more effort to add information of course
And, well, think of how much detail you’d have to add – and the jury’s reaction to someone skipping a few paragraphs of detailed risk assessment “because it was fine print” – and then awarding them damages because “the warning was too hard to read”.
What you see is, as you suspected, the result of an attempt to prevent liability, not an attempt to present the most useful and detailed knowledge – and to be fair, most people don’t really want that level of detail, I think.
(In my more curmudgeonly moods, I’d say most people aren’t capable of processing it effectively…)
Doug S. | March 21, 2011 at 8:36 pm | Reply
Once upon a time, my father, after observing that a container of chlorine bleach had a warning on it not to mix it with ammonia, decided to try it and see what happens…