Using graphics to communicate health risks

In the midst of COVID-19, the general public continues to search for digestible information related to the pandemic. New research from the University of Nevada, Reno College of Business suggests that the public may respond better to information presented in graphic versus numeric formats.

According to the researchers, the brain processes visual information faster than numeric information. As a result, their research suggests that consumers tend to focus on the easier-to-process outcome values or severities rather than focus on the more difficult-to-process numeric probabilities associated with possible outcomes.

“Whenever we have any risk, … you have a set of possible outcomes … and a probability of each outcome occurring. Our research focuses on how best to communicate the probabilities of possible outcomes to the public.”

“Risk communications affect consumer choice in a variety of health contexts, such as when evaluating immunizations, choosing whether to undergo invasive health screenings, selecting adequate insurance coverage, or most recently, when trying to come to terms with the risks posed by COVID-19,” James Leonhardt, associate professor of marketing in the University’s College of Business, said.

Leonhardt along with Ronald Lembke, associate professor and chair of marketing in the University’s College of Business and L. Robin Keller, professor of operations and decision technologies, at the University of California, Irvine, recently assessed whether using pictograph charts to communicate health risks help consumers evaluate probabilities and outcomes of health information.

“Whenever we have any risk, not necessarily a health risk, you have a set of possible outcomes that may or may not happen end up happening and a probability of each outcome occurring,” Leonhardt said. “Our research focuses on how best to communicate the probabilities of possible outcomes to the public and how that impacts their risk perception and the decisions they make based on that perception.”

In their research from 2018, “Do pictographs affect probability comprehension and risk perception of multiple-risk communications?” published in the Journal of Consumer Affairs Volume 52, Number 3, the researchers showed 282 participants, each of which had a child under the age of 18, an information sheet on childhood vaccines.

Participants read a statement that said to imagine that health officials are recommending that all children get a vaccine to avoid contracting pertussis, a potentially life-threatening disease. The participants received an information sheet listing a range of side effects alongside pictographs to convey the numeric information.

After reading the information sheet, participants answered questions to measure their comprehension of the probabilities presented. The responses showed that when numeric information is paired with pictographs, it increased comprehension of the probabilities of the side effects actually happening and it lowered the risk perception of the vaccine. These attitudes could result in higher vaccination rates for children.

“A graphical representation of the distinct probabilities of COVID-19 shown in comparison to the seasonal flu, could enhance the willingness of the general public to take preventative measures.”

Further, Leonhardt explained that the COVID-19 pandemic is another example of how using risk graphics could help the public comprehend the probabilities being reported. For instance, he examined the early stages of communication regarding the risks of COVID-19, when the virus was commonly compared to the seasonal flu.

While there is still a lot to be learned about COVID-19, early analysis suggested that the death rate will be higher than the seasonal flu. The seasonal flu death rate is about 0.1% and, at the time of this analysis, the COVID-19 death rate was estimated at 1% Although that rate may eventually be adjusted once asymptomatic people with COVID-19 are included, many people will not readily see the magnitude of the difference between those numbers without doing the math themselves.

“A graphical representation of the distinct probabilities of COVID-19 shown in comparison to the seasonal flu, could enhance the willingness of the general public to take preventative measures,” Leonhardt said. “News sources and government agencies have started depicting coronavirus more graphically to promote preventative measures like washing hands, staying at home and social distancing so the general public can understand the need to protect themselves and others.”

While pictographs used to communicate health risks increase the general public’s understanding of probabilities, Leonhardt cautioned that it can also create a fear factor or hysteria surrounding the virus because comprehension of the numbers would go up.

“People tend to focus too much on the outcome rather than the probability,” Leonhardt said. “When using pictographs, it is especially beneficial to convey these small probabilities to help people not overestimate the likelihood of these events but still understand the risk of not taking preventative measures.”


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