Ideas on risk communication

A review of the literature on road safety, injury prevention and medical decision-making provides two important principles in risk communication: (1) fear is counterproductive, and (2) format and graphic design affect people’s choices.

A review of the literature on road safety, injury prevention and medical decision-making provides two important ideas for risk communication: (1) fear is counterproductive, and (2) format and graphic design affect people’s choices.

Inform people on how to prevent risks

People are more receptive to messages that explain how to prevent negative outcomes (such as injuries and diseases), because they like to feel that they can control what happens to them [1, 2]. In contrast, messages that only inform people about risks and potential harm are less effective [3, 4]. In fact, research in road safety shows that this kind of advertising produces the opposite psychological reaction:  “this won’t happen to me”[5].

In addition, individuals are less receptive to messages that convey chance, because people get anxious when they have to worry about something that may or may not happen; they want certainties [6].

Use proper phrasing and graphic design.

Format is crucial in risk communication [3]. For instance, research has shown that people feel disproportionately less vulnerable to an injury or a disease, when they are presented risks in percentage form; for instance, “authorities expect that 17% of cyclists will sustain injuries this year”. However, this effect disappears when individuals are presented percentages alongside with absolute numbers. For example, “30% percent of cyclists, approximately 1,300 men and women, will sustain injuries this year”. [7]

Graphic design is also important, especially when communicating complex risks to lay people [8, 9]. In fact, research shows that icon arrays (see picture below) improve the accuracy of risk perception, particularly in those individuals with low numeracy skills [10].

Icon array to convey probabilities
Example of an icon array to convey the probability that a medical treatment will fail.


  1. Cunningham, S. (2008). Driving offenses: law, policy and practice. Ashgate Publishing Limited: Burlington.
  2. Yilmaz, V. & Çelik, H. (2004). A model for risky driving attitudes in Turkey. Social Behavior and Personality, 32, 8, 791-796.
  3. Lewis, I., Watson, B., Tay, R. & White, K. M. (2007). The role of fear appeals in improving driver safety: a review of the effectiveness of fear-arousing (threat) appeals in road safety advertising. International Journal of Behavioral Consultation and Therapy, 3, 2, 203-222.
  4. Tay, R., Watson B., Radbourne O. & De Young B. (2001). The influence of fear arousal and perceived efficacy on the acceptance and rejection of road safety advertising messages. In Road Safety Research: Policing and Education Conference (Regain the Momentum), Melbourne, Australia, 2001.
  5. Harré, N., Foster, S. & O’Neill, M. (2005). Self-enhancement, crash-risk optimism and the impact of safety advertisements on young drivers. British Journal of Psychology, 96, 215-230.
  6. Slovic, P. Fischhoff, B,  Lichestein, S. (1992). Informing the public about the risks from ionizing radiation. In Arkhes, H.R. & Hammond, K.R., Judgment and decision-making. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, MA.
  7. Price, P.C. & Matthews (2009). From group diffusion to ration bias: Effects of denominator and numerator salience on intuitive risk and likelihood judgements. Judgement and Decision Making, 5, 436-446.
  8. Feldman-Stewart, D & Brundage, M.D. (2004). Challenges for designing and implementing decision aids. Patient Education and Counseling, 54, 265–273.
  9. Hawley, S.T., Zikmund-Fisher, B., Ubel, P., Jancovic, A. Lucas, T. & Fagerlin, A. (2008). The impact of the format of graphical presentation on health-related knowledge and treatment choices. Patient Education and Counseling, 73, 448–455.
  10. Galesic, M., Garcia-Retamero, R. & Gigerenzer, G. (2009). Using Icon Arrays to Communicate Medical Risks: Overcoming Low Numeracy. Health Psychology, 28, 2, 210–216.

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