187 Risk Communication & Health

Based on research by Gibbons, Frederick X., Gerrard, M., Lane, D.J., Mahler, H.I.M., & Kulik, J.A. and written by American Psychological Association, adapted by Juanita N. Baker, Ph. D

Are you or a loved one engaging in behaviors that might be harmful? We all selectively tune out messages that do not support our views or habits.

The good news is psychological research has shown that efforts to change people’s judgments about the risks associated with many different health-related behaviors can successfully change those behaviors, for example, in smoking, sun exposure, getting mammograms, HIV/AIDS prevention, and radon problems in homes.

Contrary to the widely held belief that adolescents think that they are invulnerable, researchers at Iowa State and the University of California San Diego have shown that risk messages can be successful in changing youth’s behavior. Psychologist Frederick Gibbons and colleagues showed college students photographs of their faces using a filter that revealed the skin damage that they had already sustained from the sun. They also gave them information about the risks of sun exposure, such as premature skin wrinkling and skin cancer. This intervention was successful. Over the next month these students decreased their use of tanning booths.

Health professionals who educate their patients about health risk issues and motivate them to engage in healthier behaviors have an impact. Listen, weigh the risks, act, and be healthier!

Copeland, A.L., & Brandon, T.H. (2000). Testing the causal role of expectancies in smoking motivation and behavior. Addictive Behaviors, Vol. 25, pp. 445-449.

Gibbons, F.X., Gerrard, M., Lane, D.J., Mahler, H.I.M., & Kulik, J.A. (2005). Using UV photography to reduce use of tanning booths: A test of cognitive mediation. Health Psychology, Vol. 24 (4). pp. 358-363.

McCaul, K.D., & Mullens, A.B. (2003). Affect, thought, and self-protective health behavior: The case of worry and cancer screening. In J. Suls and K. Wallston (Eds.), Social Psychological Foundations of Health and Illness, Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers.

Stephenson, M.T., & Witte, K. (1998). Fear, threat, and perceptions of efficacy from frightening skin cancer messages. Public Health Reviews, Vol. 26, pp. 147-174.

Weinstein, N.D., Lyon, J.E., Sandman, P.M., & Cuite, C.L. (1998). Experimental evidence for stages of health behavior change: the precaution adoption process model applied to home radon testing. Health Psychology, Vol. 17, pp. 445-453.

Witte, K., Meyer, G., & Martell, D. (2001). Effective health risk messages: A step-by- step guide. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

For more details see:


American Psychological Association, July 7, 2004

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