The complexity of numerical information about health risks and benefits places demands on people that many are not prepared to meet. For example, much information about health is communicated numerically, such as treatment risks and effectiveness, lifestyle benefits, and the chances of side effects from medication. However, many people—especially the old, the poor, and the less educated—have difficulty understanding numerical information that would enable them to make informed health decisions. Some evidence also suggests cultural and gender differences (although their causes have been disputed). The ability to use and understand numbers (i.e., numeracy) plays an important role in how information should be displayed and communicated. Measuring differences in numeracy provides a standard to guide one’s approach when communicating risk. Several surveys have been developed to allow for a descriptive assessment of basic and analytical mathematical skills in nationally representative samples (e.g., NAEP, NAAL, PISA, PIACC). Other measures assess specific skills, such as perception of numbers (e.g., number line, approximation, dots tasks), individual perception of one’s own ability (i.e., Subjective Numeracy Scale), and arithmetic computation ability (i.e., Objective Numeracy Scales, Abbreviated Numeracy Scale, and Berlin Numeracy Test). Difficulties associated with low numeracy extend well beyond the inability to understand place value or perform computations. Understanding and remediating low numeracy requires getting below the surface of errors in judgment and decision making to the deeper level of scientific theory. Despite the relevance of numbers in decision making, there is a certain level of disagreement regarding the psychological mechanisms involved in numeracy. Studies show that people have a basic mental representation of numbers in which the discriminability of two magnitudes is a function of their ratio rather than their difference (psychophysical approaches). Numerical reasoning has been identified with quantitative and analytical processes, and such computation is often seen as an accurate and objective way to process information (traditional dual-process approaches as applied to numeracy). However, these approaches do not account for the contradictory evidence that reliance on analysis is not sufficient for many decisions and has been associated with worse performance for some decisions. Studies supporting a more recent dual-process approach—one that accounts for standard and paradoxical effects of numeracy on risk communication—emphasize the role of intuition: this is a kind of advanced thinking that operates on gist representations, which capture qualitative understanding of the meaning of numbers that is relevant in decision making (Fuzzy Trace Theory). According to Fuzzy Trace Theory, people encode both actual numbers (verbatim representations) and qualitative interpretations of their bottom-line meaning (gist representations) but prefer to rely on the qualitative gist representations when possible. Thus, potential difficulties in decision making arising from deficits in numeracy can be resolved through meaningful communication of risk. Creating narratives that emphasize the contextually relevant underlying gist of risk and using methods that convey the meaning behind numeric presentations (e.g., use of appropriate arrays to communicate linear trends, meaningful relations among magnitudes, and inclusion relations among classes) improve understanding and decision making for both numerate and innumerate individuals.
Priscila G. Brust-Renck, Julia Nolte, and Valerie F. Reyna
Quotations, something that a person says or writes that is then used by someone else in another setting, have long been a staple of news stories. Reporters use quotations—both direct and paraphrased—to document facts, opinions, and emotions from human and institutional sources. From a journalistic standpoint, quotations are beneficial because they add credibility to a news report and allow readers/viewers to consider the source of information when evaluating its usefulness. Quotations are also valued because they are seen as adding a “human” element to a news report by allowing sources to present information in their own words—thus providing an unfiltered first-person perspective that audiences may find more compelling and believable than a detached third-person summary. Research into the effects of news report quotations has documented what journalists long assumed: Quotations, especially direct quotes using the exact words of a speaker, draw the attention of news consumers and are often attended to in news stories more than statistical information. Studies show that the first-person perspective is considered both more vivid and more credible, a phenomenon that newspaper and website designers often capitalize on through the use of graphic elements such as the extracted quote. Quotations in news stories have also been found to serve as a powerful persuasive tool with the ability to influence perception of an issue even in the face of contradictory statistical information. This is especially true when the topic under consideration involves potential risk. Direct quotations from individuals who perceive high levels of risk in a situation can sway audience perceptions, regardless of whether the quoted risk assessments are supported by reality. The power of quotations remains strong in other forms of communication involving risk, such as public service, health-related, or promotional messages. The vivid, first-person nature of quotes draws the attention of audiences and makes the quoted information more likely to be remembered and to influence future judgments regarding the issue in question. This presents the message creator, whether it be a journalist or other type of communicator, with a powerful tool that should be constructed and deployed purposefully in an effort to leave audiences with an accurate perception of the topic under consideration.
This article discusses the various ways in which political concerns among government officials, scientists, journalists, and the public influence the production, communication, and reception of scientific knowledge. In so doing, the article covers a wide variety of topics, mainly with a focus on the U.S. context. The article begins by defining key terms under discussion and explaining why science is so susceptible to political influence. The article then proceeds to discuss: the government’s current and historical role as a funder, manager, and consumer of scientific knowledge; how the personal interests and ideologies of scientists can influence their research; the susceptibility of scientific communication to politicization and the concomitant political impact on audiences; the role of the public’s political values, identities, and interests in their understanding of science; and, finally, the role of the public, mainly through interest groups and think tanks, in shaping the production and public discussion of scientific knowledge. While the article’s primary goal is to provide an empirical description of these influences, a secondary, normative, goal is to clarify when political values and interests are or are not appropriate influences on the creation and dissemination of scientific knowledge in a democratic context.
Christopher B. Mayhorn and Michael S. Wogalter
Warnings are risk communication messages that can appear in a variety of situations within the healthcare context. Potential target audiences for warnings can be very diverse and may include health professionals such as physicians or nurses as well as members of the public. In general, warnings serve three distinct purposes. First, warnings are used to improve health and safety by reducing the likelihood of events that might result in personal injury, disease, death, or property damage. Second, they are used to communicate important safety-related information. In general, warnings likely to be effective should include a description of the hazard, instructions on how to avoid the hazard, and an indication of the severity of consequences that might occur as a result of not complying with the warning. Third, warnings are used to promote safe behavior and reduce unsafe behavior. Various regulatory agencies within the United States and around the globe may take an active role in determining the content and formatting of warnings. The Communication-Human Information Processing (C-HIP) model was developed to describe the processes involved in how people interact with warnings and other information. This framework employs the basic stages of a simple communication model such that a warning message is sent from one entity (source) through some channel(s) to another (receiver). Once warning information is delivered to the receiver, processing may be initiated, and if not impeded, will continue through several stages including attention switch, attention maintenance, comprehension and memory, beliefs and attitudes, and motivation, possibly ending in compliance behavior. Examples of health-related warnings are presented to illustrate concepts. Methods for developing and evaluating warnings such as heuristic evaluation, iterative design and testing, comprehension, and response times are described.