Communicating risk: How relevant and irrelevant probabilistic information influences risk perception in medical decision-making

Sayuri Hayakawa*, Viorica Marian

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


Patients rely on knowing potential risks before accepting medical treatments, but risk perception can be distorted by cognitive biases and irrelevant information. We examined the interactive effects of subjective processes, objective knowledge, and demographic characteristics on how individuals estimate risks when provided with relevant and irrelevant probabilistic information. Participants read medical scenarios describing potential adverse effects associated with declining and accepting preventative treatment, as well as the objective likelihood of experiencing adverse effects associated with one of these two courses of action. We found that the perceived negativity of outcomes influenced perceptions of risk regardless of whether relevant probabilities were available and that the use of affect heuristics to estimate risk increased with age. Introducing objective estimates ameliorated age-related increases in affective distortions. Sensitivity to relevant probabilities increased with greater perceived outcome severity and was greater for men than for women. We conclude that relevant objective information may reduce the propensity to conflate outcome severity with likelihood and that medical judgments of risk vary depending on exposure to relevant and irrelevant probabilities. Implications for how medical professionals should communicate risk information to patients are considered.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)678-690
Number of pages13
JournalCognitive, Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jun 2023


  • Decision biases
  • Medical judgment and decision-making
  • Probability weighting
  • Risk communication
  • Risk perception

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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