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How Does the General Public Evaluate Risk Information? The Impact of Associations with Other Risks

Authors

  • Vivianne H. M. Visschers,

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    • 1

      Maastricht University, Department of Health Education and Promotion, Nutrition and Toxicology Research Institute Maastricht (NUTRIM), Maastricht, The Netherlands.

  • Ree M. Meertens,

    Corresponding author
      *Address correspondence to Ree M. Meertens, Maastricht University, Department of Health Education and Promotion, P.O. Box 616, 6200 MD Maastricht, The Netherlands; r.meertens@gvo.unimaas.nl.
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      Maastricht University, Department of Health Education and Promotion, Nutrition and Toxicology Research Institute Maastricht (NUTRIM) and Care and Public Health Research Institute (Caphri), Maastricht The Netherlands.

  • Wim F. Passchier,

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      Maastricht University, Department of Health Risk Analysis and Toxicology, Nutrition and Toxicology Research Institute Maastricht (NUTRIM), Maastricht, The Netherlands.

  • Nanne K. DeVries

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      Maastricht University, Department of Health Education and Promotion, Nutrition and Toxicology Research Institute Maastricht (NUTRIM) and Care and Public Health Research Institute (Caphri), Maastricht The Netherlands.


*Address correspondence to Ree M. Meertens, Maastricht University, Department of Health Education and Promotion, P.O. Box 616, 6200 MD Maastricht, The Netherlands; r.meertens@gvo.unimaas.nl.

Abstract

There is a considerable body of knowledge about the way people perceive risks using heuristics and qualitative characteristics, and about how risk information should be communicated to the public. However, little is known about the way people use the perception of known risks (associated risks) to judge an unknown risk. In a first, qualitative study, six different risks were discussed in in-depth interviews and focus group interviews. The interviews showed that risk associations played a prominent role in forming risk perceptions. Associated risks were often mentioned spontaneously. Second, a survey study was conducted to confirm the importance of risk associations quantitatively. This study investigated whether people related unknown risks to known risks. This was indeed confirmed. Furthermore, some insight was gained into how and why people form risk associations. Results showed that the semantic category of the unknown risks was more important in forming associations than the perceived level of risk or specific risk characteristics. These findings were in line with the semantic network theory. Based on these two studies, we recommend using the mental models approach in developing new risk communications.

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