How do your risk estimate and your actual level of risk impact your anxiety? Please answer the following question to the best of your ability:
What is the chance that the average woman will develop breast cancer in her lifetime?
The average lifetime chance of developing breast cancer is actually 13%.
How do your answers compare?
Making a risk estimate can change the feel of the actual risk
CBDSM investigators Angela Fagerlin, Brian Zikmund-Fisher, and Peter Ubel designed a study to test whether people react differently to risk information after they have been asked to estimate the risks. In this study, half the sample first estimated the average woman's risk of breast cancer (just as you did previously), while the other half made no such estimate. All subjects were then shown the actual risk information and indicated how the risk made them feel and gave their impression of the size of the risk. The graph below shows what they found:
As shown in the graph above, subjects who first made an estimated risk reported significantly more relief than those in the no estimate group. In contrast, subjects in the no estimate group showed significantly greater anxiety. Also, women in the estimate group tended to view the risk as low, whereas those in the no estimate group tended to view the risk as high.
So what's responsible for these findings? On average, those in the estimate group guessed that 46% of women will develop breast cancer at some point in their lives, which is a fairly large overestimate of the actual risk. It appears, then, that this overestimate makes the 13% figure feel relatively low, leading to a sense of relief when subjects find the risk isn't as bad as they had previously thought.
Why this finding is important
Clinical practice implications - The current research suggests that clinicians need to be very deliberate but very cautious in how they communicate risk information to their patients. These results argue that a physician should consider whether a person is likely to over-estimate their risk and whether they have an unreasonably high fear of cancer before having them make a risk estimation. For the average patient who would overestimate their risk, making a risk estimation may be harmful, leading them to be too relieved by the actual risk figure to take appropriate actions. On the other hand, if a patient has an unreasonably high fear of cancer, having them make such an estimate may actually be instrumental in decreasing their anxiety. Physicians may want to subtly inquire whether their patient is worried about her cancer risk or if she has any family history of cancer to address the latter type of patient.
Research implications - Many studies in cancer risk communication literature have asked participants at baseline about their perceived risk of developing specific cancers. Researchers then implement an intervention to "correct" baseline risk estimates. The current results suggest that measuring risk perceptions pre-intervention will influence people's subsequent reactions, making it difficult to discern whether it was the intervention that changed their attitudes or the pre-intervention risk estimate. Researchers testing out such interventions need to proceed with caution, and may need to add research arms of people who do not receive such pre-tests.
For more details: Fagerlin A, Zikmund-Fisher BJ, Ubel PA. How making a risk estimate can change the feel of that risk: shifting attitudes toward breast cancer risk in a general public survey. Patient Educ Couns. 2005 Jun;57(3):294-9.