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Keywords:

  • Risk communication;
  • risk probabilities;
  • message variables;
  • time intervals

Because members of the public have difficulty understanding risk presented in terms of odds ratios (e.g., 1 in 1000) and in comparing odds ratios from different hazards, we examined the use of time intervals between expected harmful events to communicate risk. Perceptions of the risk from a hypothetical instance of naturally-occurring, cancer-causing arsenic in drinking water supplies was examined with a sample of 705 homeowners. The risk was described as either 1 in 1000 or 1 in 100,000 and as present in a town of 2000 people or a city of 200,000 people. With these parameters, the time intervals ranged from 1 expected death in 3500 years (1 in 100,000 risk, small town) to 1 death every 4 months (1 in 1000 risk, city). The addition of time intervals to the odds ratios significantly decreased perceived threat and perceived need for action in the small town but did not affect response for the city. These framing effects were nearly as large as a 100-fold difference in actual risk. Instances when this communication approach may be useful are discussed.