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Closing the Gap Between Consumer Perceptions of Risk and Evidence-based Assessment of Risk

Prof. Joanna Sax

Are vaccines safe? Do genetically-engineered foods deserve the disparaging sobriquet “Frankenstein Foods”? Is fluoridated water poisonous? The list goes on.

Consumers, seeking information, increasingly take to the internet and other public forums, to satisfy themselves as to the answers to these questions. In cyberspace, however, anyone with an opinion can hold sway with a cacophony of misinformation which can lead to unintended consequences as the latest measles outbreaks in the U.S. illustrate.

“People receive ambiguous information from various sources, the internet being one example, which makes it difficult for them to assign risk appropriately,” says California Western’s E. Donald Shapiro Professor of Law Joanna Sax whose recent scholarly research, Ambiguity and Consumer Perceptions of Risk in Various Areas of Biotechnology, addresses understanding consumer resistance to various types of biotechnology when the scientists have a risk-based assessment that the technology is low risk and high benefit.

The study, co-authored by UCSD’s Professor Neal Doran and published in the Journal of Consumer Policy, also seeks to examine whether Daniel Ellsberg’s* theory of ambiguity aversion may help to explain consumer decision-making related to biotechnology.

“We know from work by Daniel Ellsberg and others that people prefer a known risk even if that risk is likely higher than an unknown risk,” says Sax. “We also know from his work and others that when people are presented with missing or conflicting information about a particular subject, then the person has a difficult time assessing risk and they assign a high risk and low benefit.”

Sax and Doran’s study sought to determine whether a participant's initial response to predictor questions indicating an aversion to ambiguous information would be associated with a tendency toward aversion to missing information regarding risk in various areas of biotechnology.

“We also sought to determine whether a participant’s responses to missing information regarding risk would be associated with their general aversion in that area,” says Sax. “We also tested whether demographic factors would be associated with high risk or low risk assessments.”

Participants in this study who indicated an aversion to ambiguous information also indicated an aversion to implementing new technology even with a description indicating that it was likely low risk and high benefit, the authors write in the study. This type of study may assist in understanding the disconnect between consumer perceptions of risk and scientific assessment of risk.

“We know from work by Blaisdell and colleagues that ambiguity aversion helps explain why vaccine-hesitant parents, for example, inappropriately assess risk from vaccines and assign a high risk even though the evidence demonstrates the risk is low, and the benefit is high,” says Sax.

Sax, who presented the study at Stanford Law School earlier in the year and is scheduled to present portions of the study at various conferences this summer, says audiences are welcoming her ideas.

“Participants at conferences often provide excellent suggestions for additional empirical studies and other ways to advance my research,” she says.

Key to this issue going forward is how the scientific and medical communities present their findings in these areas in ways that consumers might find more convincing. That, says Sax, will form part of her future research.

“Work by Cass Sunstein, Paul Slovic, Dan Kahan, Ed Rubin, and others have contributed excellent ideas to a growing body of scholarship addressing ways to communicate policies in a way that allow people to assign risk appropriately,” continues Sax. “My goal is to apply their work to the area of scientific research.”

Linked to this, says Sax, is the need to address climate change and the need to use science to solve global problems.

“If people reject scientific advances, such as the opportunity to use bio-engineered food designed to reduce human impact in our agriculture system, then we are not well positioned to address climate change,” says Sax.

As well as our food stock, other areas of scientific achievement, such as vaccines, fluoridated water, stem cell research, and clean energy are vitally important too, says Sax.

“Helping people make decisions in which their assessment of risk is in line with the evidence-based assessment of risk is critical.”

Read the complete paper, Ambiguity and Consumer Perceptions of Risk in Various Areas of Biotechnology, here

*Ellsberg, D. (1961). Risk, ambiguity, and the savage axioms. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 75, 643–669.