• Risk comparisons;
  • risk communication;
  • risk perception

Promotion or criticism of risk comparisons in risk communication has far exceeded empirical tests of their effects. Slovic et al. (1990) experimented with a hypothetical jury trial in which an asbestos-installing firm was accused of subjecting school occupants to unreasonable risk. A risk comparison sharply reduced subjects' estimates of risk and judgments that the firm was guilty, but a critique of the risk comparison had risk estimates and guilt judgments rebounding to the original (without risk comparison) level. Slovic et al. concluded that risk comparisons' effects were highly unstable, at least in conflict-ridden situations such as a jury trial. The present study replicates and extends this important study, using the same stimuli and questions. The respective effects of the risk comparison and the critique recurred, although much less sharply than in Slovic et al. Moreover, judgments of guilt, risk, and other aspects of the case seemed shaped more by demographics and beliefs about risk generically (e.g., about the likelihood of cancer after exposure to a carcinogen) than by either risk comparison or critique. A variant design, in which the defense's expert witness dismissed potential criticisms of the risk comparison, appeared to “inoculate” people against shifting their views after seeing the critique. Overall, these results show that risk comparisons might change some beliefs about risks in conflict and that “inoculation” can reduce vulnerability to criticism. However, the results also show strong limits on effects of both comparisons and their critiques: they shifted only a minority of judgments and had small effects relative to people's social locations and prior risk beliefs.