How does the general public evaluate risk information? The impact of associations with other risks

V.H.M. Visschers, R.M. Meertens*, W.F. Passchier, N.K. de Vries

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


There is a considerable body of knowledge about the way people perceive risks using heuristics and qualitative characteristics, and about how risk information should be communicated to the public. However, little is known about the way people use the perception of known risks (associated risks) to judge an unknown risk. In a first, qualitative study, six different risks were discussed in in-depth interviews and focus group interviews. The interviews showed that risk associations played a prominent role in forming risk perceptions. Associated risks were often mentioned spontaneously. Second, a survey study was conducted to confirm the importance of risk associations quantitatively. This study investigated whether people related unknown risks to known risks. This was indeed confirmed. Furthermore, some insight was gained into how and why people form risk associations. Results showed that the semantic category of the unknown risks was more important in forming associations than the perceived level of risk or specific risk characteristics. These findings were in line with the semantic network theory. Based on these two studies, we recommend using the mental models approach in developing new risk communications.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)715-727
JournalRisk Analysis
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2007

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