Absolute and comparative risk assessments: evidence for the utility of incorporating internal comparisons into models of risk perception

Psychol Health. 2022 Nov;37(11):1414-1430. doi: 10.1080/08870446.2021.1952585. Epub 2021 Jul 19.


Numerous health behavior models have emphasized absolute risk perceptions as prominent predictors of future behavior and intentions, but more recent research has shown that people also attend to comparative risk information. While most research highlights external (social) comparisons as the primary way people contextualize risk, it is also possible that people use internal comparisons, such as comparing their current risk to their past risk (temporal comparisons) or comparing their risk for one health threat to their risk for another health threat (dimensional comparisons).Objective: The current research sought to examine differences in absolute, external, and internal comparative risk perceptions across a variety of health threats.Design: This study utilized a cross-sectional design wherein participants completed all study materials online. Main outcome measures: MTurk workers (N = 654) responded to questions about absolute and comparative risk perceptions, concern, and precautionary intentions.Results: Hierarchical regression analyses revealed that although absolute risk perceptions were positively associated with concern and precautionary intentions for all health threats, comparative risk perceptions also accounted for unique variance in all models. Internal comparisons were uniquely associated with concern and intentions even when accounting for absolute and external comparative risk perceptions in nearly all models.Conclusion: These findings provide the first systematic evidence for the utility of incorporating internal comparisons into models of risk perception.

Keywords: comparative risk; dimensional comparison; risk perception; social comparison; temporal comparison.

MeSH terms

  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Health Behavior*
  • Humans
  • Intention*
  • Perception