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Numeracy and the Perception and Communication of Risk


Address for correspondence: Ellen Peters, Decision Research, 1201 Oak Street, Suite 200, Eugene, OR 97401. Voice: +1-541-485-2400.


In the present paper, I focus on a small but important piece of the risk communication/perception puzzle, namely how individuals who differ in number ability comprehend and use numeric information about risks differently. Highly numerate individuals appear to pay more attention to numbers, better comprehend them, translate them into meaningful information, and ultimately use them in decisions. Decisions of the less numerate are informed less by numbers and more by other non-numeric sources of information, such as their emotions, mood states, and trust or distrust in science, the government, and experts. Careful attention to information presentation, however, allows the less numerate to understand and use numbers more effectively in decisions. As a result, the challenge is not merely to communicate accurate information to the public but to understand how to present that information so that it is used in risky decisions.