The visual communication of risk

J Natl Cancer Inst Monogr. 1999:(25):149-63. doi: 10.1093/oxfordjournals.jncimonographs.a024191.


This paper 1) provides reasons why graphics should be effective aids to communicate risk; 2) reviews the use of visuals, especially graphical displays, to communicate risk; 3) discusses issues to consider when designing graphs to communicate risk; and 4) provides suggestions for future research. Key articles and materials were obtained from MEDLINE(R) and PsychInfo(R) databases, from reference article citations, and from discussion with experts in risk communication. Research has been devoted primarily to communicating risk magnitudes. Among the various graphical displays, the risk ladder appears to be a promising tool for communicating absolute and relative risks. Preliminary evidence suggests that people understand risk information presented in histograms and pie charts. Areas that need further attention include 1) applying theoretical models to the visual communication of risk, 2) testing which graphical displays can be applied best to different risk communication tasks (e.g., which graphs best convey absolute or relative risks), 3) communicating risk uncertainty, and 4) testing whether the lay public's perceptions and understanding of risk varies by graphical format and whether the addition of graphical displays improves comprehension substantially beyond numerical or narrative translations of risk and, if so, by how much. There is a need to ascertain the extent to which graphics and other visuals enhance the public's understanding of disease risk to facilitate decision-making and behavioral change processes. Nine suggestions are provided to help achieve these ends.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Audiovisual Aids*
  • Communication*
  • Health Education / methods
  • Humans
  • Neoplasms / epidemiology*
  • Neoplasms / mortality
  • Neoplasms / prevention & control*
  • Risk Factors