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Trust in Risky Messages: The Role of Prior Attitudes

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Risk perception researchers have observed a “negativity bias” for hazard-related information. Messages indicating the presence of risk seem to be trusted more than messages indicating the absence of risk, and risk perceptions seem more affected by negative than positive information. Two experiments were conducted to examine alternative explanations of this finding within the area of food additives. Study 1 (N= 235) extended earlier work by (a) unconfounding message valence (positive or negative) from message extremity (definite or null finding) and (b) exploring the role of prior attitudes. Results suggested that negative/risky messages were indeed trusted more even when extremity was taken into account. However, prior attitudes significantly moderated the effect of message valence on trust. Positive messages were distrusted only by those with negative prior attitudes. Study 2 (N= 252) , further explored the role of prior attitudes and extended the work by examining reactions to risky messages about a positively viewed additive—a vitamin. The results again found a moderating effect of prior attitudes on message valence. Participants had greater confidence in messages that were more congruent with their prior attitudes, irrespective of valence. Furthermore, positive messages had a greater impact on risk perception than negative messages. These findings suggest that greater trust in negative messages about hazards may be a product of a “confirmatory” rather than a “negativity” bias.

Keywords: Confirmatory bias; food additives; negativity bias; trust

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: 2003-08-01

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