Prior evidence from the public health literature suggests that both control beliefs and perceived threats to life are important for health behaviour. Our previously presented theoretical model generated the more specific hypothesis that uncontrollable, but not controllable, personal mortality risk should alter the payoff from investment in health protection behaviours. We carried out three experiments to test whether altering the perceived controllability of mortality risk would affect a health-related decision. Experiment 1 demonstrated that a mortality prime could be used to alter a health-related decision: the choice between a healthier food reward (fruit) and an unhealthy alternative (chocolate). Experiment 2 demonstrated that it is the controllability of the mortality risk being primed that generates the effect, rather than mortality risk per se. Experiment 3 showed that the effect could be seen in a surreptitious experiment that was not explicitly health related. Our results suggest that perceptions about the controllability of mortality risk may be an important factor in people's health-related decisions. Thus, techniques for adjusting perceptions about mortality risk could be important tools for use in health interventions. More importantly, tackling those sources of mortality that people perceive to be uncontrollable could have a dual purpose: making neighbourhoods and workplaces safer would have the primary benefit of reducing uncontrollable mortality risk, which could lead to a secondary benefit from improved health behaviours.
Keywords: Behaviour; Control; Decisions; Health; Mortality risk; Perceptions.