Mental models of health risks are the causal beliefs that comprise one’s inference engines for the interpretation and prediction of health and illness experiences and messages. Mental models of health risks can be parsed into a handful of common elements, including beliefs about causes, consequences, and cures as well as identifying information such as symptoms and timing. Mental models research deriving from a risk and decision analysis framework emphasizes exposure sources and pathways as part of causal thinking as well as how interventions may reduce or increase the risk. Mental models can be developed as a function of one’s goals or the problem in a specific context, rather than as coherent, stable knowledge structures in long-term memory. For this reason they can be piecemeal and inconsistent in the absence of expertise or experience with the risk. Derived often by analogy with more familiar risks, mental models of health risks can lead to effective health behaviors but also to costly inaction or misplaced action. Assessing mental models of hazardous processes can contribute to the design of effective risk communications by identifying the concrete information message recipients need to cope with health risks, thereby making or strengthening common-sense links between risk and action representations. Although a wide variety of research methods are used to investigate mental models, achieving this level of specificity requires attention to substantive details. Researchers are beginning to better understand the interactions between mental models of risk and their social, cultural, and physical contexts, but much remains to explore.
Hye-Jin Paek and Thomas Hove
Risk perception refers to people’s subjective judgments about the likelihood of negative occurrences such as injury, illness, disease, and death. Risk perception is important in health and risk communication because it determines which hazards people care about and how they deal with them. Risk perception has two main dimensions: the cognitive dimension, which relates to how much people know about and understand risks, and the emotional dimension, which relates to how they feel about them. Several theoretical models have been developed to explain how people perceive risks, how they process risk information, and how they make decisions about them: the psychometric paradigm, the risk perception model, the mental noise model, the negative dominance model, the trust determination model, and the social amplification of risk framework. Laypeople have been found to evaluate risks mostly according to subjective perceptions, intuitive judgments, and inferences made from media coverage and limited information. Experts try to base their risk perceptions more on research findings and statistical evidence. Risk perceptions are important precursors to health-related behaviors and other behaviors that experts recommend for either dealing with or preventing risks. Models of behavior change that incorporate the concept of risk perception include the Health Belief Model, Protection Motivation Theory, the Extended Parallel Process Model, and the Risk Perception Attitude framework. Public awareness and perceptions of a risk can be influenced by how the media cover it. A variety of media factors have been found to affect the public’s risk perceptions, including the following: (1) amount of media coverage; (2) frames used for describing risks; (3) valence and tone of media coverage; (4) media sources and their perceived trustworthiness; (5) formats in which risks are presented; and (6) media channels and types. For all of these media factors, albeit to varying degrees, there is theoretical and empirical support for their relevance to risk perceptions. Particularly related to media channels and genres, two hypotheses have emerged that specify different kinds of media influences. The impersonal impact hypothesis predicts that news media mainly influence how people see risks as affecting other individuals, groups, nations, or the world population in general (societal-level risk perceptions). By contrast, the differential impact hypothesis predicts that, while news media influence people’s societal-level risk perceptions, entertainment media have stronger effects on how people see risks as affecting themselves (personal-level risk perceptions). As the media environment become increasingly diverse and fragmented, future research on risk perception needs to examine more of the influences that various media, including social media, have on risk perception. Also, the accounts of how those influences work need to be further refined. Finally, since people’s risk perceptions lead them to either adopt or reject recommended health behaviors, more research needs to examine how risk perceptions are jointly affected by media, audience characteristics, and risk characteristics.
Rocio Garcia-Retamero, Dafina Petrova, Adam Feltz, and Edward T. Cokely
Graphical displays generally facilitate the communication of complex information and are ubiquitous in media. Unfortunately, people differ in their ability to extract data and meaning from graphical representations of quantitative information (i.e., graph literacy). This means that for some people, even well-designed, simple graphs will cause confusion and misunderstanding. Research on the psychology of graph comprehension focuses on two instruments that efficiently assess fundamental graph literacy among diverse adults. The Objective Graph literacy scale is a well-established instrument with good psychometric properties that measures skill via cognitive performance testing (e.g., interpreting and evaluating various graphs). The recently developed Subjective Graph Literacy scale is a brief self-report of graph literacy that can outperform the objective test in notable ways, while reducing text anxiety. Emerging applications in clinical research and practice, including computerized decision aids, can personalize content as a function of one’s graph literacy.
Irina A. Iles and Xiaoli Nan
Counterfactual thinking is the process of mentally undoing the outcome of an event by imagining alternate antecedent states. For example, one might think that if they had given up smoking earlier, their health would be better. Counterfactuals are more frequent following negative events than positive events. Counterfactuals have both aversive and beneficial consequences for the individual. On the one hand, individuals who engage in counterfactual thinking experience negative affect and are prone to biased judgment and decision making. On the other hand, counterfactuals serve a preparative function, and they help people reach their goals in the future by suggesting effective behavioral alternatives. Counterfactual thoughts have been found to influence an array of cognitive processes. Engaging in counterfactual thinking motivates careful, in-depth information processing, increases perceptions of self-efficacy and control, influences attitudes toward social matters, with consequences for behavioral intentions and subsequent behaviors. Although it is a heavily studied matter in some domains of the social sciences (e.g., psychology, political sciences, decision making), counterfactual thinking has received less attention in the communication discipline. Findings from the few studies conducted in communication suggest that counterfactual thinking is a promising message design strategy in risk and health contexts. Still, research in this area is critically needed, and it represents an opportunity to expand our knowledge.
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.