Perceived ambiguity about cancer prevention recommendations: relationship to perceptions of cancer preventability, risk, and worry

J Health Commun. 2006;11 Suppl 1(0 1):51-69. doi: 10.1080/10810730600637541.


In this study, we apply the concept of "ambiguity," as developed in the decision theory literature, to an analysis of potential psychological consequences of uncertainty about cancer prevention recommendations. We used Health Information National Trends Survey (HINTS) 2003 data to examine how perceived ambiguity about cancer prevention recommendations relates to three other cognitive variables known to influence cancer-protective behavior: perceived cancer preventability, perceived cancer risk, and cancer-related worry. Using logistic regression analyses, we tested several predictions derived from a review of literature on the effects of ambiguity perceptions on decision making, cognitions, and emotions. We found perceived ambiguity to have a strong negative relationship with perceived cancer preventability, consistent with "ambiguity aversion"-a pessimistic bias in the interpretation of ambiguity. Cancer worry moderated this relationship; ambiguity aversion increased with higher levels of worry. At the same time, perceived ambiguity was positively related to both perceived cancer risk and cancer worry. Furthermore, perceived risk partially mediated the relationship between perceived ambiguity and worry. These findings suggest that perceived ambiguity about cancer prevention recommendations may have broad and important effects on other health cognitions. We discuss ethical implications of these findings for health communication efforts, and propose a tentative causal model to guide future research.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Anxiety*
  • Attitude to Health*
  • Female
  • Health Surveys
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Neoplasms / prevention & control*
  • Neoplasms / psychology
  • Risk Assessment*
  • Social Perception*
  • Uncertainty*
  • United States