Does precautionary information about electromagnetic fields trigger nocebo responses? An experimental risk communication study

Environ Health. 2018 Apr 12;17(1):36. doi: 10.1186/s12940-018-0377-y.


Background: Regarding electromagnetic fields from mobile communication technologies, empirical studies have shown that precautionary information given to lay recipients increases their risk perceptions, i.e. the belief that electromagnetic fields are dangerous. Taking this finding one step further, the current study investigates whether precautionary information also leads to higher symptom perceptions in an alleged exposure situation. Building on existing research on nocebo responses to sham electromagnetic fields, an interaction of the precautionary information with personality characteristics was hypothesised.

Methods: An experimental design with sham exposure to an electromagnetic field of a WLAN device was deployed. The final sample is constituted by N = 137 participants. Participants received either only basic information about the safety of current WLAN exposure limits or in addition also precautionary information (e.g. 'prefer wired connections if wireless technology can be relinquished'). Subsequently, symptoms and other variables were assessed before and after sham exposure to a WLAN electromagnetic field.

Results: Results are not in favour of the hypothesised effects. There was neither a main effect of precautionary information, nor were there any of the hypothesised interaction effects of precautionary information and personality characteristics on perceived symptoms under sham exposure. Exploratory analyses highlight the role of prior risk perception as a predictor of nocebo responses, and of symptom expectations as a mediator between these two variables.

Conclusions: As the statistical power to detect even small effects was relatively high, we interpret this as a robust indication that precautionary information does not lead to increased nocebo responses by itself. The implications for health authorities´ communication with the public are discussed.

Keywords: Nocebo effect; Precaution; RF EMF; Risk communication; Risk perception.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Electromagnetic Fields / adverse effects*
  • Environmental Exposure / adverse effects*
  • Female
  • Germany
  • Humans
  • Information Dissemination*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Nocebo Effect*
  • Perception*
  • Risk
  • Young Adult