The Psychology of Warning Signs: What should your label say?

Have you noticed that everything has a warning label on it these days?    There are warning signs alerting us to omnipresent danger.  You cannot walk on any street these days without being notified as to the general lack of safety that exists out in the world.  It is 2000 years into the Common Era and you would think that we would have figured out how to navigate the world.  Despite technological advancements that appear to occur every minute, it seems that with each passing day we are increasingly frail as individual people and as a society.

We’re told it’s slippery when wet.  We are told to be cautious when handling hot coffee.  We are warned that you can choke if you put small toys in your mouth.  We’re told you can suffocate if you place a plastic bag over your head.  We are told that if we accidentally swallow some of the Visine eye drops we should call Poison Control immediately. Even my Coke Zeros have an expiration date.  Really? What is that about? I could swear that ten years ago, my Cokes didn’t expire.

We are lucky if our medication only comes with 16 lines of warning.  I believe many of us are familiar now with the fact that drowsiness, dizziness, dry mouth, or tiredness may occur when we take medications. Sometimes the medication warnings are so long that you even wonder why take the medication at all? Yesterday, I came home to a letter from Blue Cross. Apparently, even when we go through all the insurance channels and we think we are in the clear to get an MRI we receive a letter telling us that even though we received authorization to get the MRI, that said authorization is not a guarantee of payment.  Huh?  So, basically even though the insurer authorized it they may decide to not pay for the MRI fees.  Clearly we have a lack of consensus on the definition of “authorization”. You have to wonder sometimes what medical billers are smoking. Is there anything in life that is just straight forward?

Life these days consists of a series of warning, disclaimers and expiration dates. Although, I must say I looked at a Playtex tampon box recently and couldn’t find an expiration date.  Does that mean its ok to use a twenty-year old one?   I guess there are some things you will just have to take a chance on without any guidance.  Do be careful, though, if you buy a pepper spray as the warning label notes that it “may irritate eyes.”  Hmm, alright then.  I must say that I love that the packaging for a rubber band-shooter notes “Caution: Shoots rubber bands.”  It is nice to know that some things are pretty straightforward: pepper spray irritates eyes and rubber band shooters appropriately shoot rubber bands.

Signs, labels, user guides–everywhere there are warnings.  With so many warning signs to look at we’re distracted to the extremes, so much so that we often do not notice the behavioral warning signs that people themselves carry with them until the last minute.   No one knew that Ariel Castro was hiding three women in his house for over a decade, but to some people he was a little weird. Maybe if he had been carrying a warning label such as “don’t get too close to me, lest you want to disappear” things would have turned out differently.

Yes, a warning label is usually attached to an item, or contained in an item’s instruction manual, warning the user about risks associated with the use of the item. Tell me that after all you have been through in life, you didn’t wish people similarly came with warning labels.   Yes, there is the issue of common sense and how we should use that.  However, if we need a document to let us know that we can suffocate if we place a plastic bag over our heads then we can perhaps, as a species, use some help in navigating workplace and personal relationships as well. For instance, if you need to follow this instruction for a baby carriage “Caution: Remove infant before folding for storage”, maybe you shouldn’t be having children. Furthermore, you should carry a warning label that states “caution, I must never have children because my stupidity would place the child in harm’s way.”  Of course, many of these warning labels seem to state the obvious, but as we have seen what is obvious for one person is an object lesson in another person’s extreme stupidity.   Did you see the video of a man who put his child in the washing machine? He had just been joking, but it really doesn’t seem that good of a joke. I guess now the warning labels will be human-sized in that laundromat.  But he too should walk around with a warning label attached to him. I will let you decide what it should read.

As a social psychologist that works in the public health arena, I believe in warning labels on packaging to some extent (e.g. smoking causes cancer; condoms are 98% effective when used correctly). Although, I still disagree mightily with Mayor Bloomberg on the NYC big soda ban.  But, where I have felt the most need for warning labels is in the Human Resources (HR) part of my job. Have you ever seen the movie Gattaca or In Time (with Justin Timberlake) where people are marked with expiration dates and defects. I’m not saying we go to that extreme but a little bit of a heads up would be nice. Let me explain.

You know how there are signs in certain worksites (construction etc.) that say “warning: live wires.”  Well, that could very well apply to some employees. Perhaps more along the lines of “warning loose wires in this one” or “extremely jittery employee.”   There are some employees that are just so angry all the time that they at times appear to be literally fuming. Nothing you do can please said employee. Nothing. They will complain all the time about all the things they hate about that specific workplace, but when you suggest they should look for another job they cannot bear the idea of leaving.   When conducting that person’s job interview, it would have been nice to have a flashing neon sign that said “warning: will cause you nothing but grief and is a lawsuit waiting to happen.”  Or how about the employee that puts on a good show in the interview by being very engaged and on point. Yet, a few months into the job they are extremely disconnected and only connect back in (tangentially) when their job appears to be on the line.  A warning label that reads “caution: I put on a good show but I have nothing behind this” or “too good to be true” would have been great at interview time.  Or how about the smart, hard-working employee that is somewhat burnt out and you want to help, but nothing, and I mean nothing, satisfies that person.  They should have a warning label that states “once burnt out; stays burnt out. Do not attempt to reignite.”   Or, how about the initially-shy employee that you invested time and effort in, but you eventually recognized that person was toxic to the workplace? A warning sign at interview time or right around when they started their mean-girl metamorphosis would have been great; it could have read:  “Personality is not stable, in three years I will be a malicious gossip queen.”

These workplace warning labels can readily be used for romantic or friendship relationships as well.  In particular, it sure would be nice to have an expiration label or clock that starts running down the second you meet that individual.  You can then decide whether the effort you will need to invest in a new relationship will be worth it. But that would take away the fun, I suppose, of getting to know someone personally and throwing caution to the wind. Although, do note that now with social media people do tend to self-label and you should heed those warnings. If their twitter handle states they are manic and in love with love, take that as a bit of a warning sign.   I still will strongly advocate for said warning labels in the workplace. Because work is work and we don’t need the added hassles of ticking time bombs in the workplace.


Of course, I didn’t heed some various obvious warning signs myself when I hired someone a few years back. In the interview, this person not only noted that they were a clown and being considered for a reality show, but they also got several of the statistics questions that I posed incorrect. Those should have been warning signs that the person would be a drama queen and wouldn’t be able to do some key core functions. Yikes. I still hired the person to only have to fire them 6 months later while I was flying over Las Vegas.  I took a chance and wasted time. Next time I must heed the bright flashing yellow warning signs.  Better yet, those working on those much needed teleportation devices should also start working on this psychological warning label program that replaces the use of common sense. It is the wave of the future workplace.

To generate your own warning labels go here:

For some funny and real warning labels:

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