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Are Some Risk Comparisons More Effective Under Conflict?: A Replication and Extension of Roth et al.

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Despite many claims for and against the use of risk comparisons in risk communication, few empirical studies have explored their effect. Only one study, published by Roth et al. in this journal in 1990, has tested the 1988 predictions by Covello et al. as to the public's relative preferences for 14 kinds of risk comparisons as they might be used by a factory manager to explain risks of his ethylene oxide plant. That study found no correlations between the Covello predictions and seven different measures of “acceptability” of Covello's examples of each type of comparison. However, two critics of the Roth study, as well as its own authors, suggested that a scenario involving local risks, a conflict-ridden situation, and a plant manager unknown to the townspeople might better evoke Covello-like preferences than the distant, calm, friends-involving scenario used by Roth. The research reported here replicated the Roth study using the same scenario, risk comparison examples, and evaluation measures, and added a second scenario intended to replicate the conditions suggested by critics. Over 200 New Jersey residents answered the study questionnaire. The replication scenario reproduced Roth's results, and the conflict scenario also evoked no rankings correlated with Covello's predictions. Furthermore, neither agreement nor disagreement with five statements representing “conflict”—respondents' reports that the industrial-plant scenario made them angry, they lived near industry, they were concerned about industrial risks, people in their home town were angry about industrial pollution, and they worried “frequently” about long-term effects of pollution—correlated with Covello's predictions. Over half of all ratings ascribed to the comparisons in aggregate were positive, and most detailed comments offered by respondents also were positive, despite many criticisms and suggestions for their improvement. The wide variability in individuals' rankings also undermines the notion of any single ranking of preferred comparisons. These findings have implications for use of risk comparisons, but also reveal the inaccuracy of the field's assumptions about public reaction to industrial risk information, including risk comparison.

Keywords: Risk comparisons; industrial risk; risk communication

Document Type: Research Article

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/1539-6924.00354

Publication date: August 1, 2003

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