Public Reaction to Risk Comparisons: Research Project Summary



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Trenton, N.J. : New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, Division of Science, Research and Technology


"Risk comparisons"-comparison of specific risk values (e.g., of ambient air or soil pollution) to standards or to risk levels from other activities or at other locations-have been urged to help the public "put risks in context." However, little research has been conducted on actual public reactions to risk comparisons. Focus groups and a series of survey experiments with New Jersey residents explored those reactions. People rated risk comparisons as informative, wanted similar risk comparison information from government agencies or companies, and (usually) felt the information in the comparisons was understandable. However, risk comparisons had modest to weak impacts on people's risk views. For example, people's reactions to various hazards seemed driven more by their beliefs about risks in general or by who they were (e.g., women were more concerned) than by the format or content of comparisons about the hazards' risks. When a risk comparison did seem to have an effect, such as reducing judgments of risk magnitude, criticism of the comparison could undermine its effects; however, mentioning potential criticisms when the comparison was first presented offset the effect of the criticism. Adding an explicit claim about risk acceptability-"So our factory's risks should be acceptable to you"-did not appreciably affect reactions to the comparisons, despite speculation that such claims would alienate audiences. Overall, the results suggest that risk comparisons can be appreciated by public audiences, but they require careful design and pre-testing before use, and their effects can be qualitatively or quantitatively different from what the advocates of such comparisons expect.



New Jersey



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