Most people have the natural tendency to jump away when they see a tarantula crawling toward their feet. They do not need the time to process whether the tarantula was poisonous or how likely it is that it will bite them in the ankle. However, in more complex risky situations, this fight-or-flight response is not enough to lead us to rewarding decisions. So what does? That is the question that I have continued to explore in my research. In particular, from a communication perspective, what leads people to attend to risk information and make informed decisions?
To answer this question throughout theoretical development, I’m part of a group of researchers who continue to test and refine the model of Risk Information Seeking and Processing (RISP), developed by Robert Griffin, Sharon Dunwoody, and Kurt Neuwirth in 1999. Empirically, I have conducted research in health contexts including cancer clinical trials, STD and condom use, and the H1N1 pandemic; environmental contexts including renewable energy, urban watershed, and climate change; as well as other risk contexts including the establishment of research facilities for emerging technologies in rural communities.
In most of these studies, I have found that risk perception is not only shaped by an individual’s cognitive evaluation of the potential hazard, but also his or her emotional responses to the possible harm. More importantly, as research context varies, what leads people to seek out risk information and process the information carefully is often not their need to know more about the risk, but their need to fulfill other people’s expectations or to better manage the emotions they experience when making a decision under uncertainty.
For instance, in a project funded by the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society (LLS), I conducted a nationally representative survey of American adults and a survey of LLS members to compare the sociopsychological factors that influenced enrollment decisions among healthy adults and cancer patients. Findings from the project showed that even though systematic processing of enrollment information and normative beliefs played central roles in influencing healthy adults’ decisions to enroll in a trial, emotions had a stronger impact on cancer patients’ decisions. In particular, cancer patients who felt optimistic when thinking about enrolling in a clinical trial were more likely to hold favorable attitudes toward enrollment and enroll in a future trial.
In addition, cultural values and macro-level social structure also influence risk information seeking. In a recent study that examines cultural differences in risk perceptions and how these differences influence individuals’ intentions to seek information about climate change, I found that even though Chinese respondents were more likely to hold pro-environmental attitudes, their American counterparts were much more likely to be influenced by their attitudes toward the environment when gauging the potential risks from climate change and whether they should learn more about climate change. The gap between general concern about the environment and specific concern about climate change in the Chinese society might account for this difference.
Recently, I submitted a grant proposal to explore how risk information-processing styles influence people’s attribution of responsibility for mitigating the impact of climate change. This project will advance RISP-based research by experimentally manipulating research subjects’ confidence in how much they know about climate change, as well as refining measurement for information-processing styles through survey questionnaire.
Janet Yang concentrates her research on the communication of risk information related to science, health, and environmental issues.