Academic journal article Human Factors

An Evaluation of Warning Habits and Beliefs across the Adult Life Span

Academic journal article Human Factors

An Evaluation of Warning Habits and Beliefs across the Adult Life Span

Article excerpt


Beliefs about warnings and habits associated with reading them were assessed for 863 individuals of various ages. Information gathered for various common house-hold products included (a) how frequently people attend to warning information, (b) the degree of risk they believe is involved during product usage, and (c) how important they believe warnings are for different product types. Also assessed were perceived helpfulness and comprehension for symbols commonly found on product labels or on signs in the environment. Respondents 55 years and older reported reading product warnings more frequently than did younger adults, although they generally perceived warnings as less important. However, no overall age-related differences were found for perceived level of risk involved in using different product types. Although older adults generally perceived symbols to be very helpful when using a particular product, their comprehension levels were poorer than those of younger adults for half of the symbols. Overall, the se data suggest that adults of all ages do read warnings on a variety of product types and that they believe warning information is important. This research illustrates the importance of including older adults in usability studies during the development of warning systems, given age-related effects may be associated with some aspects of the warning processing but not others.


The processing of warnings is complex and not completely understood. Although numerous studies have attempted to identify the types of warnings that are effective, the bulk of the research suggests that even a good warning may not be complied with for many reasons (for a review, see Rogers, Lamson, & Rousseau, 2000). The problem, perhaps, stems from warning research that focuses more on understanding the physical attributes of effective warnings than on understanding the variables associated with the receiver of the message. To be effective, warning processing must involve an optimal combination of elements in a sign or label that is intended to convey important safety information. However, human information processes such as text and symbol comprehension, utilization of different forms of knowledge, and memory for learned information are also important to warning processing.

One human variable, age, is of particular importance when investigating the way people process warning information. Both human factors professionals and cognitive aging researchers can benefit from the study of age-related differences in the processing of warnings. By learning how different populations interpret and understand warnings found on consumer products or in the environment, human factors experts can design warning systems that will have a greater influence on compliant behavior and safety across a range of individuals. Warning research is also a fruitful area for cognitive aging researchers to investigate age-related differences in the perception and comprehension of information encountered in daily living.

The present research represents a step toward understanding age-related factors that may influence warning processing. This research contributes to the existing literature because little is currently known about how people of different ages perceive and process warnings or whether increased age improves or adversely affects habits associated with processing this kind of information in everyday life. Understanding age-related differences that may exist could allow warning designers to implement special considerations for older adults, if necessary, to facilitate warning processing across the adult life span.


Hundreds of studies have sought to determine the variables that contribute to warning effectiveness. In a comprehensive review of the literature, Rogers et al. (2000) identified a number of variables that contribute to the warning process, some related to the physical characteristics of the warning itself (i. …

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