Presenting uncertainty in health risk assessment: initial studies of its effects on risk perception and trust

Risk Anal. 1995 Aug;15(4):485-94. doi: 10.1111/j.1539-6924.1995.tb00341.x.


Some analysts suggest that discussing uncertainties in health risk assessments might reduce citizens' perceptions of risk and increase their respect for the risk-assessing agency. We tested this assumption with simulated news stories varying simple displays of uncertainty (e.g., a range of risk estimates, with and without graphics). Subjects from Eugene, Oregon, read one story each, and then answered a questionnaire. Three studies tested between 180 and 272 subjects each. Two focus groups obtained more detailed responses to these stories. The results suggested that (1) people are unfamiliar with uncertainty in risk assessments and in science; (2) people may recognize uncertainty when it is presented simply; (3) graphics may help people recognize uncertainty; (4) reactions to the environmental problems in the stories seemed affected less by presentation of uncertainty than by general risk attitudes and perceptions; (5) agency discussion of uncertainty in risk estimates may signal agency honesty and agency incompetence for some people; and (6) people seem to see lower risk estimates (10(-6), as opposed to 10(-3)) as less credible. These findings, if confirmed, would have important implications for risk communication.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Attitude to Health
  • Cognition
  • Communication*
  • Community-Institutional Relations
  • Environmental Health
  • Female
  • Focus Groups
  • Health*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mass Media
  • Perception*
  • Risk
  • Risk Assessment*
  • Science
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • United States
  • United States Environmental Protection Agency