Explaining contradictory relations between risk perception and risk taking

Psychol Sci. 2008 May;19(5):429-33. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02104.x.


Different studies have documented opposite relations between perceived risk and behavior. The present study tested a theoretical explanation that reconciles these conflicting results. Adolescents (N= 596) completed alternative measures of risk perception that differed in cue specificity and response format. As predicted by fuzzy-trace theory, measures that emphasized verbatim retrieval and quantitative processing produced positive correlations between perceived risk and risky behavior; risk perceptions reflected the extent to which adolescents engaged in risky behavior. In contrast, measures that assessed global, gist-based judgments of risk produced negative correlations; higher risk perceptions were associated with less risk taking, a protective rather than reflective relation. Endorsement of simple values and principles provided the greatest protection against risk taking. Results support a dual-processes interpretation of the relation between risk perception and risk taking according to which observed relations depend on whether the cues in questions trigger verbatim or gist processing.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adolescent Behavior / psychology*
  • Conflict, Psychological*
  • Cues
  • Female
  • HIV Infections / psychology
  • Health Knowledge, Attitudes, Practice
  • Humans
  • Judgment
  • Male
  • Perception*
  • Psychology, Adolescent / methods
  • Risk-Taking*
  • Sexual Behavior / psychology
  • United States