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Risk Perception

Public perception of risk exerts an important influence on the risk management decision-making process.  As a discipline, risk perception involves the study of the factors associated with and the nature of judgments surrounding risks to health.  Risk perceptions involve intuitive processes reflecting an array of psychological, social, and demographic factors.  For example, risk perceptions have been found to vary according to the level of knowledge surrounding the hazard, the amount of dread associated with its consequences, personal values and beliefs, gender and age group, as well as the nature of media coverage surrounding the issue.  It is often found that expert and public determinations of risk are discordant.  Indeed, expert determinations of risk typically reflect scientific or analytical processes whereas public determinations of risk reflect such variety of inputs above.  This discrepancy in risk perceived can often lead to difficulties in risk communications or in the acceptability of risk management decisions made by regulators and health officials.  A clearer understanding of how the public forms perceptions of health risks will aid in the design of population health risk management efforts.

In Canada, two large studies of health risk perception have been conducted.  The first survey was conducted in 1992 (Krewski et al. 1995a; 1995b) and the second in 2004 (Krewski et al. 2005; 2006).  The most recent, 2004, survey evaluated health risk perceptions in a national sample of 1,503 Canadians.  The results indicated, when evaluating level of risk perceived for thirty specific hazards, that Canadians tended to perceive behavioural risks, such as those associated with cigarette smoking, obesity, and unprotected sex, as posing the greatest risk to the health of Canadians.  In contrast, potential health risks associated with the use of medical devices or therapies, such as natural health products, laser eye surgery, and vaccines, were perceived the lowest.  Level of risk perceived was found to vary by gender, age group, and level of educational attainment where women, older respondents, and respondents with less education tended to report risk as being higher than their counterparts.  Risk perceptions were also found to vary by geographical region of residence.  The news media was most often cited as the most frequently used source of information about health risks.  This was followed by medical doctors and the internet.  In contrast, medical doctors and university scientists/scientific journals were cited as the most credible information source.  Lastly, nearly half (45%) of respondents indicated that a risk-free environment is an attainable goal in Canada.


Krewski D, Slovic P, Bartlett S. et al. 1995a. Health risk perception in Canada I:  rating hazards, sources of information and responsibility for health protection. Human and Ecological Risk Assessment 1:117-132.

Krewski D, Slovic P, Bartlett S et al. 1995b. Health risk perception in Canada II:  worldviews, attitudes and opinions. Human and Ecological Risk Assessment 1:231-248.

Krewski D, Lemyre L, Turner MC, Lee JEC, Dallaire C, Bouchard L, Brand K, Mercier P. 2005. Project 2.1: National Survey of Health Risk Perception and Acceptability in Canadians.  In:  Public Perception and Acceptable Levels of Health Risk among Canadians (Krewski D, Lemyre L, Dallaire C, Bouchard L, Brand K, Mercier P). Contract report prepared for Health Canada, Institute of Population Health, University of Ottawa, Ottawa, Canada. 

Krewski D, Lemyre L, Turner MC, Lee JEC, Dallaire C, Bouchard L, Brand K, Mercier P. 2006. Public Perception of Population Health Risks in Canada: Health Hazards and Sources of Information. Human and Ecological Risk Assessment12:626-644.


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