The relationship between perceived risk, perceived control and perceived knowledge was investigated for a range of food related hazards. One hundred and eighty six questionnaires were completed; these were designed to assess perceived risk for a range of food related hazards at three levels of risk “target”— personal risk, risk for other people, and risk for society. Additional questions about perceived control and perceived knowledge for the potential hazards were also asked.

Results indicated that individuals perceived personal risk to be lower than for either other people or society, independent of the hazard characteristics, in line with the theory of optimistic bias. Personal control tended to be seen as greater for the self than for other people, for those hazards where personal control was conceptually feasible. Perceived control for societal hazards was conferred onto society. Individuals thought that personal knowledge for a given hazard was greater than for other people. No direct relationship between perceived control and perceived risk was found, although there was a direct relationship between perceived knowledge and perceived control.

The results are discussed within the framework of optimistic bias and illusion of control. It is concluded that the mechanism for such effects is dependent on the perceived characteristics of the potential hazard itself.

Optimistic bias and greater perceived knowledge about potential hazards may explain the failure of public information campaigns; individuals will assume that they are invulnerable to hazards, and that information is directed at individuals less knowledgeable than themselves.