Discussing what he terms the ‘World Risk Society’, Beck describes an ‘experiment’ of sorts that was done with small children to see what meaning they inferred from a skull and cross bones. The results are perfect evidence for how context influences the meaning of a symbol or text… Beck explains:
“…in the USA just a few years ago (Benford, 2000)[, t]he US Congress appointed a commission with the assignment of developing a system of symbols that could properly express the dangers posed by American nuclear waste-disposal sites. The problem to be solved was: how can we communicate with the future about the dangers we have created? What concepts can we form, and what symbols can we invent to convey a message to people living 10,000 years from now?
The commission was composed of nuclear physicists, anthropologists, linguists, brain researchers, psychologists, molecular biologists, sociologists, artists and others. […] The commission looked for precedents in the most ancient symbols of humankind. They studied Stonehenge and the pyramids; they studied the history of the diffusion of Homer’s epics and the Bible. They had specialists explain to them the life-cycle of documents. But at most these only went back 2000 or 3000 years, never 10,000.
Anthropologists recommended using the symbol of the skull and crossbones. But then a historian remembered that, for alchemists, the skull and bones stood for resurrection. So a psychologist conducted experiments with 3-year-olds to study their reactions. It turns out that if you stick a skull and crossbones on a bottle, children see it and immediately say ‘Poison’ in a fearful voice. But if you put it on a poster on a wall, they scream ‘Pirates!’ And they want to go exploring.” (p.40)
Ref: (emphases in blue bold, mine) Ulrich Beck (2002) The Terrorist Threat : World Risk Society Revisited Theory, Culture & Society 19: 39-55