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The Influence of Uncertain Map Features on Risk Beliefs and Perceived Ambiguity for Maps of Modeled Cancer Risk from Air Pollution


Dolores J. Severtson, UW-Madison School of Nursing, Box 2455 Clinical Science Center Rm H6/236, 600 Highland Ave, Madison, WI 53792, USA; tel: +608–263-5311; fax: +608–263-5332;


Maps are often used to convey information generated by models, for example, modeled cancer risk from air pollution. The concrete nature of images, such as maps, may convey more certainty than warranted for modeled information. Three map features were selected to communicate the uncertainty of modeled cancer risk: (i) map contours appeared in or out of focus, (ii) one or three colors were used, and (iii) a verbal-relative or numeric risk expression was used in the legend. Study aims were to assess how these features influenced risk beliefs and the ambiguity of risk beliefs at four assigned map locations that varied by risk level. We applied an integrated conceptual framework to conduct this full factorial experiment with 32 maps that varied by the three dichotomous features and four risk levels; 826 university students participated. Data was analyzed using structural equation modeling. Unfocused contours and the verbal-relative risk expression generated more ambiguity than their counterparts. Focused contours generated stronger risk beliefs for higher risk levels and weaker beliefs for lower risk levels. Number of colors had minimal influence. The magnitude of risk level, conveyed using incrementally darker shading, had a substantial dose-response influence on the strength of risk beliefs. Personal characteristics of prior beliefs and numeracy also had substantial influences. Bottom-up and top-down information processing suggest why iconic visual features of incremental shading and contour focus had the strongest visual influences on risk beliefs and ambiguity. Variations in contour focus and risk expression show promise for fostering appropriate levels of ambiguity.