Probability information in risk communication: a review of the research literature

Risk Anal. 2009 Feb;29(2):267-87. doi: 10.1111/j.1539-6924.2008.01137.x. Epub 2008 Nov 5.


Communicating probability information about risks to the public is more difficult than might be expected. Many studies have examined this subject, so that their resulting recommendations are scattered over various publications, diverse research fields, and are about different presentation formats. An integration of empirical findings in one review would be useful therefore to describe the evidence base for communication about probability information and to present the recommendations that can be made so far. We categorized the studies in the following presentation formats: frequencies, percentages, base rates and proportions, absolute and relative risk reduction, cumulative probabilities, verbal probability information, numerical versus verbal probability information, graphs, and risk ladders. We suggest several recommendations for these formats. Based on the results of our review, we show that the effects of presentation format depend not only on the type of format, but also on the context in which the format is used. We therefore argue that the presentation format has the strongest effect when the receiver processes probability information heuristically instead of systematically. We conclude that future research and risk communication practitioners should not only concentrate on the presentation format of the probability information but also on the situation in which this message is presented, as this may predict how people process the information and how this may influence their interpretation of the risk.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Communication*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Models, Theoretical
  • Patient Education as Topic / methods
  • Patient Participation
  • Physician-Patient Relations*
  • Probability
  • Risk Assessment
  • Risk Factors
  • Risk*