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Helping Individuals to Understand Synergistic Risks: An Assessment of Message Contents Depicting Mechanistic and Probabilistic Concepts


Johnnie E. V. Johnson, Centre for Risk Research, School of Management, Faculty of Business and Law, University of Southampton, SO17 1BJ, UK;


Accumulating evidence shows that certain hazard combinations interact to present synergistic risks. However, little is known about the most effective ways of helping individuals to understand this complex risk concept. More specifically, there is an absence of empirical research that has assessed the relative efficacy of messages that explain either the causal mechanism and/or the probabilistic components of synergistic risks. In an experiment designed to address this issue, we presented participants with messages concerning the synergistic risk of developing esophageal cancer for individuals who consume both tobacco and alcohol. Relative to a control group, we compared the extent to which messages featuring content detailing the underlying biological mechanism, the probabilistic risk, or both improved understanding of the synergistic risk. Our results showed that messages containing details of both the mechanism and probabilistic information were most effective at enabling individuals to understand that the alcohol-tobacco combination presents a synergistic risk. In addition, large improvements in the accuracy of cancer frequency estimates were observed amongst individuals who received probabilistic information, and the highest relative increase in professed willingness to adopt precautionary behaviors was observed amongst individuals who received the mechanism information only. Importantly, these findings could be utilized in the development of a general model for the communication of synergistic risks. Furthermore, in contrast to previous findings, our study demonstrates that risk messages can be both effective and efficient in helping individuals to acquire a greater understanding of synergistic risks. Acquiring such knowledge could lead to significant improvements in risk-related decisions concerning combined hazards.