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may lose the public’s trust unless they present their expertise in a concise, comprehensible form, acknowledging scientific uncertainties and controversies. Fischhoff advocated a disciplined approach to analyzing citizens’ information needs, recognizing their cognitive strengths and weaknesses, and, wherever possible, empirically evaluating communications before delivering them to the public. Often, people already know things that they don’t need (or want) to have repeated, while still having gaps in their knowledge, keeping them from understanding the magnitude of risks, or the processes creating and controlling them. As a result, communication should begin by identifying the information most relevant to the decisions that people face, finding out what they currently know, and filling in the missing pieces. When population groups (e.g., citizens, health practitioners) have different information needs, the same strategy can lead to different messages targeted at population subgroups.

The social context in which risks are experienced is crucial when considering a risk communication strategy, reiterated Vish Viswanath, National Cancer Institute. In particular, the cultural, economic, and experiential differences that produce health disparities can also create communication differences. For example, people of lower socioeconomic status tend to receive health information from a few local, community-based sources. Conversely, scientists tend to communicate in ways that provide greatest benefit to members of the highest socioeconomic groups. Thus, if risk communication strategies hope to narrow the informational divide between these groups, they must emphasize bottom-up, grass-roots channels. One situation that sometimes prompts communication to traditionally disadvantaged groups arises when a local community is aroused by the perception of disproportionately suffering the adverse health effects of, for example, pollution or poor diet. The conflict attending that interest can, however, complicate the communication process, by reducing trust between the parties. Viswanath added that it is sometimes necessary to get a message out before all the facts are known because, if predictions prove to be correct, substantial adverse health effects can be averted. He emphasized that, as more facts emerge, it is the duty of the scientific community (e.g., scientists, policy makers, and health care professionals) to explain why risk estimates have changed so as not to cause confusion and distrust.

People of lower socioeconomic status are more likely to receive health information from single or few sources and those sources are likely to be local and community-based.

-Vish Viswanath

Changing Behavior through Persuasive Communication

Speakers in the second session discussed processes of persuasive communication. They emphasized that understanding human behavior is a central element to such communication. Sometimes, achieving the collective good requires convincing people that behavior change is needed. In the words of Ed Maibach, Porter Novelli, “educating people does not necessarily motivate them, and motivating them does not necessarily change their behavior.” Speakers described risk communication approaches to achieving behavioral change, in contacts such as smoking cessation,

Messages that carry implications for personal benefit are often easier to craft than those that ask individuals to behave differently for the common good, for example, to drive less or buy more fuel-efficient cars.

-Ed Maibach



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