RISK PERCEPTION FOR COMMON CONSUMER PRODUCTS (SAFETY)
BREMS, DOUGLAS JOSEPH
Doctor of Philosophy
A review of recent research on risk perception shows that little attention has been given to risk perception for common accidents and injuries such as those that occur in and around the home. The study of common risk perception, however, could be useful in the development of psychological theories of memory and judgment, as well as in the design of better product warnings. In this study, two types of knowledge among "non-expert" individuals was tested, including knowledge about relative levels of risk and knowledge about the ways that injuries occur. Information was gathered about these two types of knowledge using (1) frequency estimation tasks in which subjects estimated annual emergency room injury frequencies for each of ten common consumer products, and (2) scenario recall tasks in which subjects recalled, generated, and organized accident scenarios for the same ten products. While performance on the frequency estimation tasks highlighted a surprising ability to assess accurately and quickly relative levels of risk, the scenario recall and rating tasks showed severe errors in judgment. In the frequency estimation task, estimates that were made within 2 seconds of category presentation were just as accurate as those made after lengthy analysis and review of scenarios. In the scenario recall task, subjects recalled or generated only about 40 percent of the common accident scenarios, and overestimated their own ability to recall scenarios. In short, information about relative levels of risk was readily accessible to individuals, while information about the ways that injuries occur often was not. A second finding concerned individuals' confidence in the relationship between estimated and actual frequencies in conditions where estimates were based on intuition (very fast estimates) or analysis (more deliberate estimates). Though frequency estimation performance did not improve after performing evaluations such as "fault tree analysis", confidence ratings nonetheless increased. This suggests that intuitive judgments can be as accurate as more thoughtful, analytical judgments and that the act of performing an analysis may sometimes lead to overconfidence in judgment. The issue of when analysis improves judgment and when it does not is worthy of further study as a general, theoretical concept.