Lay understanding of synergistic risk: the case of radon and cigarette smoking

Risk Anal. 1998 Jun;18(3):343-50. doi: 10.1111/j.1539-6924.1998.tb01300.x.


The combination of radon and smoking produces a synergistic risk of lung cancer. Lay understanding of this risk was examined from the perspectives of mental models theory, the psychometric approach to risk perception, and optimistic bias. As assessed by interview, participants (N = 50) had more extensive mental models for the risks of smoking than for the risks of radon or the combination of radon and smoking; 32% knew little or nothing about radon. Despite reading an informational brochure, their risk-perception ratings of the three hazards showed no perception of the synergy between smoking and radon risk, although the combined hazard was rated as less familiar but more controllable than the average of the single hazards (p < .01). No evidence of optimistic bias for the health consequences of radon, or the combination of radon and smoking was observed. Participants appeared to be combining the single-hazard risks subadditively to arrive at their combined-hazard risk perceptions. Further research on the integration of perceived risks would be beneficial for designing optimal communications about synergistic risk.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Cocarcinogenesis
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Lung Neoplasms / etiology
  • Male
  • Models, Psychological
  • Neoplasms, Radiation-Induced / etiology
  • Perception
  • Psychometrics
  • Radon / adverse effects*
  • Risk*
  • Smoking / adverse effects*
  • Surveys and Questionnaires


  • Radon