The Land of “No”

Striking on this van trip out east has been the proliferation of signs for motorists, pedestrians, shoppers, swimmers, fishermen, campers, and others with the goal of controlling your behavior, and warning of the dire consequences if you fail to obey.

Kennebunkport (this bucolic Maine village, home of the Bush Family Compound) seems obsessed with preventing parking in any space and bombards visitors with no parking, waiting, or loitering warnings. The New York State Park system apparently wants to be sure visitors have no fun – no swimming allowed on appropriate beaches, no pets allowed anywhere, scolding about trash (despite their policy not to provide trash cans), etc. Beaches have big signs when you enter telling you their  maximum capacity (like fire marshall’s limits in an auditorium). Do I really need a sign that the Meacham Lake Beach has an occupancy limit of 312 persons? Another beach postfull of rules (see below) commands that “Beach Blankets Must Be 10 Feet Apart.” Really?

The motivation is understandable: communities and parks are confronting more and more bad behavior – individuals leaving their trash behind, ignoring obvious safety and security risks, and otherwise behaving badly. Some of the motivation is also legal risk: if there is a sign preventing swimming then there is some protection against liability is someone drowns.

Social psychologists know that a kind of immunity and even resistance behavior sets in with too much exposure to messages. Ambulances and fire trucks have had to increase their decibel-level and develop new siren sounds to break through the familiarity of traditional sirens and the cacophony of urban noise. Marketers develop new and increasingly more provocative messages to get the attention and “eyeballs” of viewers and listeners conditioned to ignore advertisements. Stop signs are no longer enough by themselves – they are increasingly accompanied by flashing lights or warnings of photo enforcement to get our attention. However, the escalation of signage has not resulted in better compliance, quite the opposite.

This arms race of signs and warnings will ultimately be ineffective. But it is also an assault to the senses in places where people are trying to relax, recreate, and “get away from it all.” All of this signage intrudes in places where presumably your whole goal is to experience nature and some amount of solitude. I was wondering what Henry David Thoreau (both Civil Disobedience and Walden Pond Thoreau) would think of the atmosphere and experience now in many of our public parks?

There is a principle in social regulation of balancing benefits and risks or costs of interventions. The signage equivalent is asking whether it is worth it to visually command some behavior (and expecting a resulting outcome) versus degrading the experience for most people that results from too much hectoring.  

Of course, the harder question is how much we can expect to substitute command and control approaches for norms of socially appropriate behavior. The erosion of long-standing norms of good behavior is surely a critical problem, but you have to doubt that adding more and more obnoxious signs is the solution.

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