Probability size matters: The effect of foreground-only vs. foreground+background graphs on risk aversion diminishes with larger probabilities

Graphs are increasingly recommended for improving decision‐making and promoting risk‐avoidant behaviors. Graphs that depict only the number of people affected by a risk (“foreground‐only” displays) tend to increase perceived risk and risk aversion (e.g., willingness to get vaccinated), as compared to graphs that also depict the number of people at risk for harm (“foreground+background” displays). However, previous research examining these “foreground‐only effects” has focused on relatively low‐probability risks (<10%), limiting generalizability to communications about larger risks. In two experiments, we systematically investigated the moderating role of probability size on foreground‐only effects, using a wide range of probability sizes (from 0.1% to 40%). Additionally, we examined the moderating role of the size of the risk reduction, that is, the extent to which a protective behavior reduces the risk. Across both experiments, foreground‐only effects on perceived risk and risk aversion were weaker for larger probabilities. Experiment 2 also revealed that foreground‐only effects were weaker for smaller risk reductions, while foreground‐only displays decreased understanding of absolute risk magnitudes independently of probability size. These findings suggest that the greater effectiveness of foreground‐only versus foreground+background displays for increasing perceived risk and risk aversion diminishes with larger probability sizes and smaller risk reductions. Moreover, if the goal is to promote understanding of absolute risk magnitudes, foreground+background displays should be used rather than foreground‐only displays regardless of probability size. Our findings also help to refine and extend existing theoretical accounts of foreground‐only effects to situations involving a wide range of probability sizes.

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