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New Study by Professor Suzanne Thompson Explores How People React to Health and Safety Warnings

Warnings about health and safety threats are common in everyday life, from the dangers of identity theft to the rise of the West Nile virus. People’s disposition and reactions to warnings, however, are varied. Some ignore warnings; some deny that the threat applies to them; some overreact with great anxiety; and others take reasonable actions to protect themselves.

An article co-authored by Pomona College Professor of Psychology Suzanne Thompson, recently published in the British Journal of Health Psychology, examines people’s dispositions and reactions to the specific threat of bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical in plastics.

Thompson’s study, which was funded by the National Science Foundation, categorizes threat response in three ways: denial-based people regularly find ways to dismiss threats, sensitivity-based people are overly concerned with threats; and control-based people are likely to investigate the threat and protect themselves, if needed.

A national sample of 200 adults received the same accurate information about the dangers of BPAs via one of two types of messages: either plain or fear arousing. Participants then rated their susceptibility, concern, and intentions to protect themselves and their families against BPA.

Because there is evidence that BPA is especially dangerous for children, adults also identified whether they were a parent or non-parent. It was expected that parents would experience higher levels of threat, as would others who received a fear-arousing message.

The plain message regarding the dangers of BPA was developed using material from websites of reputable sources (i.e., Centers for Disease Control). It gave a description of the risks associated with BPA, described research indicating possible harm associated with the chemical and suggested preventive measures. The fear-arousal message contained additional information in bold print, indicating that the chemicals are a health danger to oneself and one’s family. Cancer, diabetes and other serious health problems were mentioned.

As expected, both threat orientations and the intensity of the threat influenced reactions.  The high-intensity threat conditions had opposite effects on those who are denial-based and those high in heightened sensitivity.  In response to high threat, denial-prone individuals dismissed the message and had low protection intentions, whereas those prone to heightened sensitivity reacted to high threat with higher concern and intentions to change their behavior.  In contrast, those who use a control-based threat orientation were concerned and intended to take action regardless of threat intensity. 

The conclusion after these results indicates that a “one size fits all” approach to warnings will not work because the same warning can have dramatically different results. Thompson’s current research explores how to determine the most effective way to target those with different orientations.

Thompson has been awarded numerous research grants from the National Science Foundation, the John Randolph and Dora Haynes Foundation and the Irvine Foundation, among others.