Illuminated emergency exit signs inform building occupants about safe egress routes in emergencies. These exit signs are often found in the presence of other colored signs, which may distract occupants when searching for safe exits. Such distractions can lead to confusing and even harmful outcomes, especially if occupants misinterpret the sign colors, mistaking non-exit signs for exit signs. We studied which colored signs people were most likely to infer were exit signs in a simulated emergency evacuation using virtual reality (VR). Participants were immersed in a virtual room with two doors (left and right), and an illuminated sign with different colored vertical bars above each door. They saw all pairwise combinations of six sign colors across trials. On each trial, a fire alarm sounded, and participants walked to the door that they thought was the exit. We tested two hypotheses: a local exposure hypothesis that color inferences are determined by exit sign colors in the local environment (i.e., red) and a semantic association hypothesis that color inferences are determined by color-concept associations (i.e. green associated with "go" and "safety"). The results challenged the local exposure hypothesis and supported the semantic association hypothesis. Participants predominantly walked toward green signs, even though the exit signs in the local environment-including the building where the experiment took place-were red. However, in a post-experiment survey, most participants reported that exit signs should be red. The results demonstrated a dissociation between the way observers thought they would behave in emergency situations (red = exit) and the way they did behave in simulated emergencies (green = exit). These findings have implications for the design of evacuation systems. Observers, and perhaps designers, do not always anticipate how occupants will behave in emergency situations, which emphasizes the importance of behavioral evaluations for egress safety.
Keywords: Color cognition; Emergency exit signs; Evacuation; Virtual reality; Visual reasoning.
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