03 February 2009

Peter Harris & Paschal Sheeran awarded grant to study behaviour changes related to risk

Peter Harris and Paschal Sheeran have been awarded an ESRC grant (c. £100k) for a project entitled "Does making people think they are at risk, or making them feel afraid or worried, change people's behaviour? Analysing the experimental evidence." The lay summary is below.

Lay Summary:
Common sense and scientific research converge on the notion that that risk appraisals are key determinants of people’s decisions and actions. The idea is that to ensure that people recycle more, use their car less, or maintain a healthy weight (for instance), they need to recognise that global warming and obesity are serious threats that place them at personal risk. Scientific theories of behaviour change have identified four distinct risk appraisal variables. These are risk perceptions which refer to people’s beliefs about the possibility of experiencing harm, fear/worry which refers to feelings about the possibility of experiencing harm, anticipated emotion which refers to the feelings that people expect to have if harm came to them (e.g., regret or guilt), and perceived severity which refers to beliefs about how serious are the consequences of experiencing a hazard. Although the idea that risk appraisal variables have an important impact on behaviour is plausible and finds some support in the literature, in fact, the calibre of evidence supporting this assumption is weak. This is because the vast majority of studies only compute correlations between these risk/threat appraisal and behaviour. Thus, we cannot say for certain that changing risk perceptions, fear/worry, anticipated emotions, and perceived severity will subsequently change behaviour. The proposal is to conduct a quantitative review of intervention studies that were successful in changing these key variables in order to determine both how often these changes transform subsequent intentions and behaviour, and how big an effect these changes have on motivation and action. The review will also examine whether it is necessary to enhance coping processes (e.g., self-efficacy) at the same time as risk appraisal, and will identify intervention characteristics and methodological factors that determine the strength of impacts on intentions and behaviour. Thus, the research will permit firm conclusions to be drawn about how effective it is to make people think they are at risk, or make them feel afraid or worried, in order to change their behaviour.