Home Asides Study: After a while, prerecording messages ignored

Study: After a while, prerecording messages ignored

by Benjamin Kabak

“Ladies and gentlemen, this is an important message from the New York City Police Department.” We know the words. We hear them every day. There’s something about keeping your belongings safe, checking yourself and saying something if you see something. Then there are others — about unlawful sexual conduct, riding on the outside of train cars, panhandling, etc. At this point, veteran subway riders simply sigh when the same prerecording announcements we’ve been hearing for five years starts to play. We’re suffering from noise overkill.

Now, a recent study suggests that not only are we annoyed by these announcements, but we generally just flat-out ignore them. A professor of psychology from the U.K. says prerecorded announcements create complacency as they become a part of life’s background noises. “People habituate to any kind of stimulus and eventually filter it out and the same thing happens with warnings and announcements,” Judy Edworthy said. “It is rather like crying wolf – people get warning fatigue. It means people could actually be at more risk of what they are being warned about.”

As one U.K.-based reporter found, 27 prerecorded messages played at one rail station within the span of 30 minutes, and researchers are blaming the fear companies have that they will be “accused of failing to alert customers to potential dangers.” In New York, the epidemic isn’t as bad as the one described in The Telegraph, but sometimes, all we want is a little bit of quiet. We’ll say something if we see something. Now stop berating us.

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Larry Littlefield October 4, 2011 - 12:20 pm

This morning I saw something — a briefcase left on top of a garbage pail on the platform — and said something to the conductor, who promised to report it.

I knew that there was a 99.99999999 percent chance someone had just set it there and then forgotten it. But I also suspected no one else would bother. And I knew my daughter would be following me down to that platform a few minutes later, and I would never forgive myself on the oft chance.

BTW, back when New York had skilled criminals of the type now common in Europe, my father in law told me there were signs at the subway entrances to beware of pickpockets. The pickpockets would stand near the signs, watch the riders grab for their wallets to make sure they were still there, and then follow the marks down into the subway knowing where the wallets were.

Benjamin Kabak October 4, 2011 - 12:23 pm

So did anyone do anything after you said something?

Larry Littlefield October 4, 2011 - 2:16 pm

The conductor said he would call it in. I was already on the train, as it pulled in right when I reached the platform, and stepped out and told him at the next stop. So I don’t know what happened.

Everard Bone October 4, 2011 - 12:33 pm

Thank you for pointing this out. It’s been one of my biggest NYC peeves for years, starting when I lived in Harlem and had a long subway ride to work every day. The MTA seems to concentrate these messages into a long series between distant express stops, so passengers from far-flung neighborhoods get the worst of it. I’ve complained many times to MTA about this, telling them that we are entitled to a peaceful (if not exactly quiet) ride. But if anything, it’s only getting worse. Now they make the same announcements on the platforms, and they’ve added increasingly ridiculous warnings in the train about sexual harassment, car surfing, etc. I always thought I was the only person who cared about this; I’m glad I’m not!

Bolwerk October 4, 2011 - 12:41 pm

Eh, well, complacency or not, it’s incredibly rude to inflict non-stop noise on people to begin with. For all this talk of being considerate to other passengers, the MTA could try being considerate to us.

(They love doing it when you’re trapped. Going under the East River, a whole string of long-winded and ultimately futile messages can play.)

nycpat October 4, 2011 - 5:52 pm

You should here the noise they inflict on employees. It seems that 3 or 4 times an hour they read out a series of prewritten spiels about looking out for employees on the right of way, you’re responsible for safe operation, etc. Truly you tune it out after awhile but I suspect it leads some employees to turn off their radios.

John October 4, 2011 - 11:52 pm

I’ve never thought about this. Very, very interesting. I truly wonder all the time what it’s like to be a driver/conductor. This little piece is very funny to me.

Alon Levy October 5, 2011 - 5:42 pm

Is there a real reason for this spiel, or are they just being annoying for the sake of being annoying? If it’s the latter, then maybe the union should ask to end this policy on driver sanity grounds.

nycpat October 5, 2011 - 7:56 pm

There was a reason, the deaths of several transit workers. It is now an ineffetive practice but someone in upper management has to pull the plug on. The new RCC might have something to do with it, in that console dispatchers have to show they are doing something ( a logbook of announcements is kept).
Before the new RCC it seeemed you’d hear a rule of the day along with the time once or twice a shift. Now it’s 3-5 times per hour.

SpendmoreWastemore October 4, 2011 - 1:30 pm

After the saturation point (about a week’s worth of it) the babble serves as cover for bureacrats who are helping create the problem they profess to solve.

It’s more about job security for someone whose main function is keeping their chair warm.

How about having the people who actually work watch MTA management and maintenance. They would see which people in jobs which do essentially nothing and say “You’re Fired”.


Patrickonius Maximus I October 4, 2011 - 1:46 pm

I chuckle everytime I hear “please offer your seat to and elderly, handicapped or pregnant person.” Pregnant person? Has political correctness gone so far as to prevent us from presuming the pregnant person might necesarily be a woman? Is the MTA bowing to the fear that they might upset an overly optimistic Chaz Bono on his way to work one day?

Alon Levy October 4, 2011 - 2:10 pm

It’s either that or “Elderly or handicapped person or pregnant woman.” It’s more concise to have just one coverall noun.

Jonathan October 4, 2011 - 2:31 pm

I took the subway for the first time in a while the other day and realized something that I had not previously noticed in 25 years: the angry tone of the conductor’s live announcements made me more edgy and less calm. I would prefer the calm prerecorded announcements to hearing the conductor shouting at riders to “step all the way into the car” at every stop.

John October 4, 2011 - 2:52 pm

Personally I kind of like an urgent tone from a conductor. Not angry though. Somewhere between calm and angry…

John October 4, 2011 - 11:55 pm

I, too, like the urgency of the conductors, specifically when they are reminding customers to not block doors and step all the way in. It is the only way our frustration and anger toward these dolts is communicated effectively.

John October 4, 2011 - 2:50 pm

Was the author of the study “captain obvious”??

Kai B October 5, 2011 - 1:09 am

The funny thing is that it takes as little as switching up the / adding new announcements to grab people’s attention. For weeks after the panhandling, electronics theft, and sexual harassment announcements came out you could tell people were very peculiarly attentive about them. A little change of text or context around the security announcements every once in awhile would do the trick for some time.

BrooklynBus October 5, 2011 - 8:13 am

One of the most annoying pre-recorded announcements are those on the new buses which automatically state that passengers should exit through the rear door every time someone signals to get off. While useful information some of the time, many times it serves no purpose other than to annoy people. When there are a half dozen people on the bus, and no one is getting on, it makes no sense to to walk to the exit door especially if you are sitting in front and your destination is in that direction. For people with difficulty walking, every extra step counts. Other the bus is so crowded that it is just impossible to use the rear door even I’d you wanted to.

It would make more sense if these announcements could be triggered by the bus operator instead of them coming on automatically. There should be a default setting for on or off, so the drivers could make exceptions when he wanted to. It must annoy him as much as it annoys passengers when the bus is nearly empty especially near the end of a route when one person is getting off at every stop and no one is boarding.

josh October 5, 2011 - 11:49 am

they are going to keep playing those announcements until people finally follow the instructions. it rarely happens when i take the bus.

Christopher October 5, 2011 - 10:04 am

Honestly they should just turn the announcements off all together. Besides the fact that it makes my morning commute feel like I’m living in 1984, I knew from the first day that I heard them that they would fall into peoples auditory filter immediately. Its a complete and total waste of time. At least they don’t have these on the 7 train where the PA system is often set so loud it will deafen passengers.

I’m really tired of all the security theater come to think about it. We aren’t going to stop people from doing harm with announcements useless check points. Prime example is why do they search bags weekly at Grand Central Station when someone who is planning on harm can just enter the subway system unmolested closer to where they actually live, you know like in Eastern Queens, Brooklyn or the Bronx.

josh October 5, 2011 - 11:46 am

Besides just ignoring them, I usually miss the announcements because i am wearing headphones to listen to music or podcasts. i see a lot of other people doing the same thing. It would be nice if there was something like a strobe light before each message to alert people like me to hit the pause button or pull out an ear bud so we don’t miss the messages. It could be like the flash of light on a fire alarm strobe. A system enhancement like that would sure cut back on the confusion when your train suddenly goes express and skips your stop, as well as more important situations.

Amanda October 5, 2011 - 11:00 pm

3 things
1- I once saw a bag of chemicals being stashed in a nook at GCT, and I tracked down a police officer to report it. The officer seemed really amused and unconcerned, and responded with no urgency.
2- I’ve learn that if an announcement is preceded by “Ladies and Gentleman, This is an important announcement from the New York City Police Department” I can tune out the announcement as not being important at all!
3- The other day I was taking an unfamiliar, crowded train and wanted to know what stop was next. But everytime the digital sign inside the train cycled to “The next stop is” it would switch to an “important announcement.” So real information was being displaced due to the frequency of these PAs.

Andrew October 5, 2011 - 11:06 pm

The prerecorded public service announcements are manually activated by the conductor. If they kept interrupting the next stop announcements, that’s because the conductor was deliberately using them to cut off the next stop announcements.

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