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Keywords:

  • Risk perception;
  • risk communication;
  • worry;
  • public opinion;
  • agenda-setting

An unusual questionnaire was used to explore what risks concern laypeople. It asked respondents to list, in their own words, as many risks of personal concern as they could. They then selected the five risks of greatest concern and answered a set of specific questions about each. A coding scheme was developed for categorizing these responses and was shown to have good reliability. The questionnaire was administered to a heterogeneous convenience sample of subjects. They reported a very broad range of risks of concern, which differed in plausible ways as a function of their gender and age. Females and student-age subjects were generally more concerned about the environment, whereas males and older subjects were more likely to mention health and safety risks. Both the extent of the risk-reduction actions that they reported and their expressed willingness to pay for future risk reductions were greater for risk that presented a direct personal threat (e.g., health risks) than for risks that posed a diffuse threat to the environment or to people in general (e.g., pollution). Respondents perceived themselves as bearing primary responsibility for managing threats to their own health, but generally saw government as bearing a heavier responsibility for managing environmental risks (especially for pollutants) and war. The questionnaire instrument and coding structure developed for this work are well-suited to a variety of future research applications. They provide a way to identify the risks that concern lay groups, as well as to track the evolution of those concerns over time.