Podcast interview – David Schwebel

The Maze, Safety Pin, Design icons

In this podcast Gail Greatorex talks with David Schwebel, Professor of Psychology, and Associate Dean for Research in the Sciences at University of Alabama, Birmingham.

David talks about a series of tragic toddler deaths and how his research led to important changes in the design of a product. David and Gail discuss the need to think about how children perceive and interact with products. In the final segment, David talks about work he has done on the vigilance of swimming pool guards, and how this has lessons for supervision in other activities.

Also available on iTunes.

Gail:           Thank you David for agreeing to the interview. Your work centres around preventing unintentional injury in children, adolescents and young adults. I think that’s quite a challenging field, but a really important one.

Your approach to this is from a psychological and behavioural perspective. And you’ve done a study in 2015 on children’s recognition of dangerous household products. Could you tell us a little bit about that please?

Tragic lessons from poor product design

David:        Sure, let me begin with a bit of background. I had been contacted by an attorney who was representing the family of a young boy who was out camping with his family to celebrate the boy’s second birthday. They were in the wilderness and lighting torches that we call tiki torches in the United States; and these torches use a simple fuel, and the fuel has some citronella smell to it – they’re designed to keep mosquitoes away.

The family had lit the torches, and this fuel bottle was about half emptied, and somehow this boy just a day or two before his second birthday got his hands on it and took a sip of the fuel, and several hours later was dead in a hospital.

Gail:           Wow.

David:        And so the attorney called me and told me about this story, and asked if I would be willing to work with him to study this product and think about the risks to children and their safety. As we began to talk and I began to learn more about the product I thought about it from a behavioural perspective, and much of my training is in how children develop, and how young children are different than older children.

Of course this boy, just before his second birthday, could not read and so was relying on what the bottle looked like to determine if it was safe or not.

With all of these types of injuries there’s a whole range of issues, and I think we’d all agree that the idea would be parents supervising their children very carefully… And the idea would have been storing this sort of product safely away from where children could reach it; but we also have to recognise that there will be times when children see products and make a decision about what to do with that product on their own, independently; even young children like a one-year old.

David Schwebel podcast

Tiki torch fuel – original packaging*

And it turns out that this product is packaged in a transparent bottle – I should say was, it no longer is – but at the time the product was packaged in a transparent bottle, and the liquid was a yellowish, orangeish type colour that looks remarkably like a bottle of juice. In the United States, it looks remarkably like a bottle of apple juice. And so if we picture a child that is one and a half, obviously cannot read, sees this bottle – it’s a hot summer day, you’re out camping – it’s not entirely surprising to me that this child may be thirsty and pick up the bottle and drink it.

So we did a series of studies with children between 18-months and, if I remember right, four-years of age, to look at how they determine whether products are safe to drink, are tasty to drink, or whether they might be dangerous – working with funding from this attorney.

Regrettably as he continued his work he discovered many other cases – I worked with him on several cases, most of them fatal.

These were young children, all of them in this age range, about 18-months to age three or four, all of them pre-literate, unable to read, almost all of them in outdoor settings and hot (weather). So the children were wanting something to drink, obviously wanting something sweet, like a juice, and in various cases distracted parents not supervising, and children managing to get their hands on the bottle and consuming it.

Product design improvements

Gail:           So you mentioned that the bottle was transparent originally in the case that you were talking about, but now it’s not. So that’s a design change that’s been implemented?

David:        It is. We conducted our research in a series of studies, and the general design was we asked children to complete various tasks, and in some cases the tasks had them sort bottles into what’s safe and what’s dangerous.

In other cases we asked the children, which one would you prefer to drink? And we showed them two bottles. In all instances our goal was to determine what sorts of designs might lead to an increased likelihood the child would rate it as something dangerous, or would sort it as something dangerous, or would not touch it, or think of it as something they could drink.

The biggest influence was changing it from a transparent bottle with a juice coloured liquid inside, to an opaque bottle.

David Schwebel podcast interview

Tiki torch fuel – revised packaging*

What we discovered in our research was that the biggest influence was changing it from a transparent bottle with a juice coloured liquid inside, to an opaque bottle – in our case we used a black bottle, so you couldn’t see the colour inside.

We also had some indication that a square container, which is more of a prototype, like a fuel container or a gasoline container, seemed to help a bit. And we had indication that a metal container would be safer than the plastic bottle.

We also had some indication that changing the label to be not particularly colourful – so a plain, black and white label, rather than bright coloured – those things also seemed to help; but really the biggest difference from what our research suggested was that the opaque container helped more than a transparent container.

Gail:           I think that’s really valuable research to have done, and you know, to take the scientific and behavioural approach to it and really understand. And that way that you’ve got information then that feeds into the industry that’s putting the products together, and it’s really helpful to them to understand those elements.

David:        That’s right, and I’ve never talked personally to the industry representatives that made decisions, but a few years after our research they did decide to package – the leading company in the United States now packages the product in an opaque, kind of a dark purple, almost black colour.

Gail:           I’m aware of similar issues around dishwasher tablets and washing machine detergent that look like something that’s edible; something like a sweet; that children will get access to those – there’s been some poisonings, and the industry has wrestled with how to make their product less child-appealing, but still do what they want it to do for the purposes of washing clothes or washing dishes.

David:        Yes, absolutely. I mean there’s a number of examples we could use, and I think that’s one; and the list could go on and on.

Certainly when you’re dealing with young children who can’t yet read we have to think about how they categorise and sort and organise products, to decide if they’re something edible, something drinkable or not.

And we need to think about their cognitive construction of categories, and how they stereotype and prototype objects and beverages and toys and drinks and foods.

Gail:           There might well be some broader application across other products. I know that there’s a fairly detailed study of age grading for toys intended for children that takes account of psychological levels of development and so forth, so maybe there’s something that we can add into that.

Child development

David:        When we think of child development it’s important to think about the various aspects of development. So one of the primary concerns with toys, of course, is choking hazards; and that becomes an issue with young children. Of course they tend to put things in their mouth, that helps them explore the world. It also helps them soothe teeth that are coming in. And so we have guidelines about – you know, in most countries – about how large parts of toys can be to reduce choking risk.

But I think it’s important also to go beyond physical development. So when we think physical development, we think sizes and strength and so forth, but an important part of development is cognitive development. It’s ‘think skills’. How do children think? We need to be able to consider thinking skills, and how children conceptualise the world, and remember that children’s brains are far, far underdeveloped compared to an adult brain.

Gail:           Well that’s right, and quite often – like with toys – you know, you hear that parents will say, ‘Oh no, this toy is rated for a 6-year old and above, and my child’s only four, but he’s pretty bright. I’ll give it to him.’ And he doesn’t always have all of those elements developed.

David:        That’s right. There’s certain thinking skills that simply don’t develop until children get older, and we may be able to push that a bit, or train that a bit; but there’s certain things that simply don’t develop until a particular age.

Gail:           Can I ask you David, based on your studies and your background, what sort of messages you might give to product designers, manufacturers and retailers about understanding how consumers interact with products generally.

David:        Sure. Well, there’s a lot of messages. Let me try a few. I think one message I would have is that we need to work at this together. Clearly we need parents to supervise children, especially younger children. Clearly we need an environment that’s safe, so we need dangerous products stored safely. But I think we also need to recognise that children will interact with the products alone, no matter how strong our supervision.

I’m in this field, I think of myself as someone that supervises my children fairly well; but even someone like me, my children are going to encounter things on their own. So we need to recognise that children will engage in products on their own, and therefore make products as safe as we can for the children if they encounter it alone.

Gail:           So, anticipating the ways that products might be used in… perhaps in ways that might be different from what was intended.

David:        Right. So that was a second point that I think is important to realise that products should be used in one way, and we can provide warnings and encourage use in that way, but consumers are creative, and child consumers are particularly creative; and children are going to be exploring and touching and creating.

If we think about it, that’s how we develop. The only way you can learn to ride a bicycle is to try it. Children naturally are inclined to try new things and to experiment with what they encounter; and that’s true of a two-year old who’s exploring his or her environment by tasting and touching, but it’s also true of a fifteen-year old who’s trying to learn how to operate a car.

Gail:           Or a mini motorbike for instance.

David:        That’s right.

Children naturally learn about the world by trying things and therefore we have to assume that our products will be tried and explored and sometimes used improperly.

Gail:           So you would suggest it’s up to suppliers to anticipate, or try to predict how the product is intended (to be used) – you would advise suppliers to maybe think through the whole range of options, of ways that consumers could use their product; especially children?


I think we share responsibility to keep children safe; and when I say we I talk about scientists, I talk about industry, I talk about suppliers, I talk about parents, and I talk about children themselves.

And there’s a shared responsibility for safety. I think industry has a responsibility to do what they can to keep their product safe by assuming products will be used by children in various ways.

David Schwebel interview podcast

Prof. David Schwebel presenting at NeuRA

Pool life guards and lessons on supervision

Gail:           Your talk today at NeuRA is about interventions to change supervision behaviour. Can you give us a flavour of that talk, just in a few minutes?

David:        We’ve done a number of studies in my laboratory, thinking about how to keep children safe. So we’ve worked at changing children’s environments, we’ve worked at changing what children do themselves, but we’ve also worked at changing the behaviour of adult supervisors; and so I’ll talk about several of our studies today. One of them, as an example, is a study with life guards at a swimming pool. Life guarding is a tremendously challenging job. And we don’t pay our life guards well, at least in the United States.

Gail:           I suspect we don’t do it here either.

David:        Anywhere in the world. They tend to be young. They’re sitting out in the hot sun for long hours and watching very repetitive behaviour.

Gail:           And they have to keep their attention span fixed for the entire time for long periods.

David:        Exactly. Most agencies that hire life guards require frequent breaks and rotations, but even so you’ve got a very intense attentional task to do for a long time. So we did a study to try to help life guards attend better – to keep their attention and to notice what’s happening on top of the water, as well as underneath the water.

We were working at a swimming pool, but I think this applies equally well to beach settings; and our goal was to help life guards keep swimmers safe. We did that through basic health behaviour change – how do we increase the life guard’s perception of vulnerability? Make them realise someone can die if you make a mistake?

We told them a story about a drowning that had happened at a swimming pool similar to theirs. Make them realise ‘this can happen to you’. And then give them the self-efficacy, the tools they need to be successful; remind them of the lessons they learned in their life guarding training classes, and teach them how to scan the swimming pool and these various tasks, about how to properly scan the top of the water, below, and go back and forth, and so forth, to make sure you detect that rare event.

Many life guards will work their career without saving a drowning person. But if they make a mistake . . . There’s very few occupations where if you make a mistake someone dies. And to make them realise that.

So this is to do with changing some mindsets about supervision a little bit?

David:        That’s right, and I think what we did with life guards, we’ve applied it at pre-schools in the playground, we are talking about applying it on youth sports fields to work with referees and coaches, and I think it also can apply to parents and how we supervise our children at home.

Gail:           Speaking of life guards, are you a fan of the TV show Bondi Rescue?

David:        Oh, I don’t know that one. Sorry.

Gail:           It’s a half hour program which I assume is probably on in the US, because Bondi Beach is so famous. It’s a study of the lifesavers who monitor the beach and every episode they’re out rescuing someone about to drown, who’s been dragged out by the rip, because they have so many foreign tourists come through who are unfamiliar with the conditions, and it’s a fascinating program. It’s real dedication to their task, and they’re very professional.

David:        I will look it up. I know the Australian life guards are renowned internationally for being among the best in the world.

Gail:           That’s right. Well hopefully you’ll get a chance to pop down to Bondi Beach while you’re here as well.

David:        I was there yesterday. It’s beautiful, yes.

Gail:           Oh good. Did you go in the water?

David:        No. Well, just my feet. I didn’t want to go swimming.

Gail:           Well, I’m sure there was a Bondi life guard watching over you while you were there.

David:        I’m sure.

Gail:           All right, I think we might wrap it up on that note. Thanks David, I really appreciate you giving me your time today.

David C Schwebel is Professor of Psychology and Associate Dean for Research in the Sciences at University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Further reading

Findings: What young children see when they look at poisons (*Bottle images sourced from this article.)

Children’s recognition of dangerous household products: child development and poisoning risk

Brief report: A Brief Intervention to Improve Lifeguard Surveillance at a Public Swimming Pool

David Schwebel interview podcast

Gail Greatorex and David Schwebel