Absolute and comparative risk perceptions as predictors of cancer worry: moderating effects of gender and psychological distress

J Health Commun. 2006;11 Suppl 1:37-49. doi: 10.1080/10810730600637301.


Risk perceptions for cancer measured on absolute scales (e.g., "What is the likelihood that you will get cancer?") and on comparative scales (e.g., "How does your risk compare with that of someone similar to you?") are independently associated with worry about cancer. We examined this finding in a large sample across several types of cancer, and explored whether these relationships are moderated by three clinically relevant variables-gender, levels of psychological distress, and cancer experience. Participants were respondents in a national survey who reported risk perceptions and worry regarding colon cancer (923 men, 1,532 women), breast cancer (2,154 women), and prostate cancer (860 men), and completed a validated measure of psychological distress. Analyses showed that absolute and comparative risk perceptions were independent predictors of worry across all cancer sites, but that absolute risk perceptions were significantly more predictive than comparative risk perceptions of worry for women (but not men). Among people who were more highly distressed, comparative risk perceptions were the only significant predictor of worry. Absolute risk and comparative risk were equally predictive of cancer worry among people who previously had been diagnosed with cancer. These findings imply that interventions highlighting the communication of comparative risk information may be differentially effective depending on the audience.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Anxiety*
  • Attitude to Health*
  • Communication
  • Female
  • Health Surveys
  • Humans
  • Information Dissemination
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Neoplasms / psychology*
  • Risk Assessment*
  • Sex Factors
  • Social Perception
  • Stress, Psychological*
  • United States