Symbols Have Power

by Dr Rob Long on August 10, 2013

in Psychology of Safety and Risk,Robert Long,Zero Harm

Symbols Have Power

Really interesting article by Dr Rob Long from – only for Safety People who like to “think outside the square” LOL

Depositphotos_2597171_xsOne of the most overlooked yet important factors in safety culture influence is the power of symbols. The psychological significance of symbols and the embodiment of values in symbols are often neglected when organisations think about safety culture. Many organisations have next to no emphasis on visual, symbolic or special literacy. Many organisations confuse systems or behaviours for culture and despite extensive diagnostics usually end up with more onerous systems or more oppressive demands on behaviour as if such are what culture change is all about. The outcome of a narrow understanding of culture leads to fundamental conflict between systems and behavior and symbols and beliefs. Such organisations create ‘safety culture schizophrenia’; that accepts ‘double speak’ and normalizes confusion in discourse. This is most apparent in organisations that believe that safety and zero can accommodate learning and cultural maturity.

This week tradesmen found the bones of a cat and a pair of boots concealed in the construction of a building in Brisbane (;; ). Workmen uncovered the artefacts in the basement of the National Trust building in William St in the Brisbane CBD.

The ritual of concealing objects in the construction of buildings was and is common. Archeologists have recorded hundreds of such findings in Australia including, finding a child’s shoe in the east pylon of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Despite many claims that people are sophisticated and rational in belief and practice, most people are superstitious and attribute coincidence to non-rational causes: ). This is why people attribute power to symbols and objects, and this extends way beyond being exclusively tied to religious and cultic practices.

Symbols and objects (and the ideas that they embody) when held in high value have a ‘priming effect’ on those who believe in the efficaciousness of the symbol. In the end the symbol itself takes on an idolatrous power long after the story of the symbol has been forgotten. The making of symbols as sacred objects is not restricted to religious groups, many non-religious organisations make certain symbols, ideas and objects immovable. The idea or symbol then must not be challenged or questioned, to do so is considered rebellious and such challenges must be quashed. One can find out quite quickly if zero is a religious symbol of an organisation simply by challenging it. The response will demonstrate power of the symbol.

The story of Gino Castignoli in New York is a classic example of the cultural power of symbols. In 2007 Castignoli was a construction worker who was part of the construction of the $1.5 billion Yankees stadium. Unbeknown to many Castignoli buried the shirt of Boston Red Sox baseball champion David Ortiz in the concrete foundations of the structure, believing it would bring 30 years bad luck to the Yankees. A year later after many rumours the story broke that the shirt was in the foundations of the stadium. The thought that the shirt of the Boston Red Sox champion was inside the structure of Yankee Stadium played on their minds. After extracting confessions re the location of the shirt it was jackhammered up.

What symbols and icons, objects and ideas are important to your organisation? What symbols have taken on a cultural power that extend beyond the idea and story that prompted the adoption of that symbol in the organisation? Are your organisations symbols consistent with values, attitudes and beliefs? Is the defense of the symbol rational or irrational? How are people in your organisation made visually literate?

  • Hi John, I do a great deal about this in my Grad Cert program.

  • John

    There is so much truth in this article.

    This enhances what pictographs are about and if combined with the subliminal messages so much can be achieved. This is over and above success of all the rules and procedures. With the pictograph, the brain is interacting and processing.

    Much more needs to be done and researched in this area

  • We chose a symbol of one character raising their hand to speak-out, surrounded by a chain, symbolising our desire to see such acts done without the individual risking their livelihood in doing-so.

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