The present study set out to evaluate perceptions of risk, psychological morbidity and health behaviours in women with a family history of breast cancer who have attended genetic counselling and determine how these differ from general population risk women. Data were collected from 62 genetic counselees (cases) attending the Royal Marsden and Mayday University Hospital genetic counselling services and 62 matched GP attenders (controls). Levels of general psychological morbidity were found to be similar between cases and controls; however, cases reported significantly higher breast cancer-specific distress despite clinic attendance [mean (s.d.) total Impact of Event Scale score, 14.1 (14.3) cases; 2.4 (6.7) controls, P < 0.001]. Although cases perceived themselves to be more susceptible to breast cancer, many women failed correctly to recall risk figures provided by the clinic; 66% could not accurately recall their own lifetime chance. Clinics appeared to have a positive impact on preventive behaviours and cases tended to engage more regularly in breast self-examination (monthly, 66% of cases vs 47% of controls), although few differences were found between groups in terms of health beliefs. We conclude that counselees and GP controls showed considerable similarities on many of the outcome measures, and risk of breast cancer was not predictive of greater psychological morbidity; although cases were more vulnerable to cancer-specific distress. Despite genetic counselling, many cases continued to perceive their risk of breast cancer inaccurately.