Lay people have difficulty understanding the meaning of environmental health risk information. Visual images can use features that leverage visual perception capabilities and semiotic conventions to promote meaningful comprehension. Such evidence-based features were employed to develop two images of a color-coded visual scale to convey drinking water test results. The effect of these images and a typical alphanumeric (AN) lab report were explored in a repeated measures randomized trial among 261 undergraduates. Outcome measures included risk beliefs, emotions, personal safety threshold, mitigation intentions, the durability of beliefs and intentions over time, and test result recall. The plain image conveyed the strongest risk message overall, likely due to increased visual salience. The more detailed graded image conveyed a stronger message than the AN format only for females. Images only prompted meaningful risk reduction intentions among participants with optimistically biased safety threshold beliefs. Fuzzy trace theory supported some findings as follow. Images appeared to promote the consolidation of beliefs over time from an initial meaning of safety to an integrated meaning of safety and health risk; emotion potentially shaped this process. Although the AN report fostered more accurate recall, images were related to more appropriate beliefs and intentions at both time points. Findings hinted at the potential for images to prompt appropriate beliefs independent of accurate factual knowledge. Overall, results indicate that images facilitated meaningful comprehension of environmental health risk information and suggest foci for further research.
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