Yes Signs and No Signs

The Figure-and-Ground Psychology of Traffic

A few years ago, we were given a sign. 

Traffic planners are the unsung heroes of our cities’ pedestrian herds. Recently, they changed their tune. It was a subtle shift. Red to green, slashes to circles, prohibitions to directions.

Prohibiting prohibition

This new meta in transportation symbols arrived about 10-20 years ago. A little after the positive psychology movement and the trend of “nudging”. The idea is to provide people with agreeable cues, subconscious triggers, or physical designs that afford the desired reaction. Behavioral economists rediscovered, in their own terms, a subtle characteristic of human decision-making.

Namely, that we really don’t like being told what not to do. Our monkey brains get rebellious and libertarian. There’s a strange urge to do exactly the opposite, just because. If a sign says “No U-Turns” and you weren’t really considering it beforehand, there’s a chance you would think about it after. There’s a good chance you would even want to execute the maneuver. 

So, the folks at the road sign shop decided to switch things up. In an effort to reduce the transportation network’s population of wannabe Vin Diesels…


Became this:

The actual logic of the signs are different, but in practice they are equal. Both of these signs are intended to direct traffic straight ahead. But the second sign conceals the loss of freedom, whereas the first sign explicitly communicates it. A green circle is the signature of a Yes Sign

There are two main reasons why Yes Signs work well. One – it seems to be less triggering to our monkey brains. Two it immediately provides a substitute for the alternate, undesirable behavior. If you don’t want someone to do something, give them something else to do.

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