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Article

Priscila G. Brust-Renck, Julia Nolte, and Valerie F. Reyna

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.

Article

Ann Bostrom

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.

Article

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.

Article

Rachel A. Smith, Xun Zhu, and Madisen Quesnell

Stigmas are profoundly negative stereotypes of a social group and its members that have diffused and normalized throughout a community. Being marked as a member of a stigmatized group does more than designate someone as different: stigmas denote people as discredited, devalued, and disgraced. Stigmas shape health and risk communication and are considered the leading—but least understood—barrier to health promotion. Communication and stigmas are dynamically connected. Communication is critical to a stigma’s existence, spread, expression, coping, and elimination. Using mediated and interpersonal communication, community members are socialized to recognize and react to stigmatized people. People use communication to enact the devaluation and ostracism of stigmatized people, and stigmatized people use communication to cope with stigmatization. Stigmas also shape communication: stigmas compel non-marked persons to engage in stigmatization and ostracism of marked persons, reduce marked people’s disclosure and encourage secrecy, and shape the characteristics of personal and community networks. Last, campaigns have used communication to attempt to eliminate existing stigmas. The accumulating research, conducted from diverse assumptions about human behavior (cultural determinism, evolutionary, socio-functional), shows how easily and effectively stigmas may be socialized; how challenging they are to manage; how many facets of health and wellbeing are devastated by their existence; and how difficult it is to attenuate them. While much has been uncovered about stigma, health, and risk, many questions remain. Among these include: How can one design messages that effectively alert the general public about imminent health threats and that successfully promote desirable behavioral changes without evoking stigma processes? How do different reactions to stigmatization influence targets and their social networks? What factors increase resistance or vulnerability to messages containing stigma-inducing content? How can one create an effective, reliable means to eliminate existing stigmas?

Article

Erik Löfmarck

How do individuals relate to risk in everyday life? Poorly, judging by the very influential works within psychology that focus upon the heuristics and biases inherent to lay responses to risk and uncertainty. The point of departure for such research is that risks are calculable, and, as lay responses often under- or overestimate statistical probabilities, they are more or less irrational. This approach has been criticized for failing to appreciate that risks are managed in relation to a multitude of other values and needs, which are often difficult to calculate instrumentally. Thus, real-life risk management is far too complex to allow simple categorizations of rational or irrational. A developing strand of research within sociology and other disciplines concerned with sociocultural aspects transcends the rational/irrational dichotomy when theorizing risk management in everyday life. The realization that factors such as emotion, trust, scientific knowledge, and intuition are functional and inseparable parts of lay risk management have been differently conceptualized: as, for example, bricolage, in-between strategies, and emotion-risk assemblage. The common task of this strand is trying to account for the complexity and social embeddedness of lay risk management, often by probing deep into the life-world using qualitative methods. Lay risk management is structured by the need to “get on” with life, while at the same time being surrounded by sometimes challenging risk messages. This perspective on risk and everyday life thus holds potentially important lessons for risk communicators. For risk communication to be effective, it needs to understand the complexity of lay risk management and the interpretative resources that are available to people in their lifeworld. It needs to connect to and be made compatible with those resources, and it needs to leave room for agency so that people can get on with their lives while at the same time incorporating the risk message. It also becomes important to understand and acknowledge the meaning people attribute to various practices and how this is related to self-identity. When this is not the case, risk messages will likely be ignored or substantially modified. In essence, communicating risk requires groundwork to figure out how and why people relate to the risks in question in their specific context.

Article

Yulia A. Strekalova and Janice L. Krieger

Risk is a social construction, and its understanding by information consumers is shaped through interaction with messages, opinions, shared and learned experiences, and interpretations of the characteristics of risk. Social actors and information flows can provide heuristic cues about risks, their relative importance and unimportance, and the attention that an information consumer ought to pay to a particular risk. Social cues can also accentuate particular characteristics of risk, further amplifying or attenuating attention to it and shaping behaviors. This, in turn, can generate secondary and tertiary effects resultant from the public’s reaction to risk. The process of social amplification of risk, therefore, has structural components that include the social elements that get enacted in the process of the translation of risk information. Risk amplification is also affected by message factors, which can dramatize information, increase attention and uncertainty, and generate shared signals and symbols. And finally, social amplification of risks results in reactions that can shape pathways for risk assessment and management, frame views, fuel intergroup dynamics in response to risk, contribute to the accumulation of experiential knowledge and signals of different risk situations, and label and stigmatize some groups or outcomes as undesirable.

Article

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.

Article

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.

Article

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.

Article

Mohan Jyoti Dutta, Satveer Kaur-Gill, and Naomi Tan

Cultivation theory examines the effects of the media, mainly television on viewer perception over an extended period of time. Television is seen by people throughout the globe, with many spending considerable amounts of time watching the medium. The act of watching television has been described as the first leisure activity to cut across social and ethnic divisions in society. This made it a unique mass media tool because mass message dissemination to diverse groups in a population was made possible. Cultivation scholars have studied the effects of the medium, trying to understand how television content can alter one’s social reality. Heavy viewers are considered to be most susceptible to the effects of cultivation. The reality of these effects poses important questions for health communication scholars considering the role television plays in disseminating health messages. Health communication scholars became interested in studying cultivation to understand the health-related effects the medium could have on viewers. Understanding the health effects of television is pivotal, considering that television and the structures that constitute television content set the agendas for many health topics, often disseminating negative and positive messages that can impact society, especially the young and impressionable. With television content addressing health issues such as nutrition, diet, body image, tobacco, cancer, drugs, obesity, and women’s health, cultivation theory can offer health communication scholars a framework to understand how health behaviors are shaped by the mass media and the roles these media play in reinforcing unhealthy behaviors. By establishing a basis for studying how such portrayals have direct health-related effects on viewers, cultivation theory creates openings for questioning the structures of the media that put out unhealthy content and for interrogating the roles and responsibilities of media agenda in inculcating positive health messages. Directions for future research include looking at contextually contrasting populations that share different cultural and community values, and different ways of consuming television. Research questions exploring the roles of community structures with different sets of subjective norms, or with different roles of community norms, in the realm of cultivation effects offer new areas for exploration.

Article

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.