Get access

Applying a Health Behavior Theory to Explore the Influence of Information and Experience on Arsenic Risk Representations, Policy Beliefs, and Protective Behavior


*Address correspondence to Dolores J. Severtson, University of Wisconsin–Madison, School of Nursing, CSC, 600 Highland Ave., Madison, WI 53792-2455; tel: 608-263-5311;


The common sense model (CSM) shows how people process information to construct representations, or mental models, that guide responses to health threats. We applied the CSM to understand how people responded to information about arsenic-contaminated well water. Constructs included external information (arsenic level and information use), experience (perceived water quality and arsenic-related health effects), representations, safety judgments, opinions about policies to mitigate environmental arsenic, and protective behavior. Of 649 surveys mailed to private well users with arsenic levels exceeding the maximum contaminant level, 545 (84%) were analyzed. Structural equation modeling quantified CSM relationships. Both external information and experience had substantial effects on behavior. Participants who identified a water problem were more likely to reduce exposure to arsenic. However, about 60% perceived good water quality and 60% safe water. Participants with higher arsenic levels selected higher personal safety thresholds and 20% reported a lower arsenic level than indicated by their well test. These beliefs would support judgments of safe water. A variety of psychological and contextual factors may explain judgments of safe water when information suggested otherwise. Information use had an indirect effect on policy beliefs through understanding environmental causes of arsenic. People need concrete information about environmental risk at both personal and environmental-systems levels to promote a comprehensive understanding and response. The CSM explained responses to arsenic information and may have application to other environmental risks.