British Psychological Society Division of Health Psychology Annual Conference location:Sheffield date:4-6 September 2002
People’s interpretation of verbal chance terms (e.g., ‘likely’) depend on their a priori beliefs concerning the likelihood of the health risks being described. The higher this likelihood, the higher the probability people associate with the verbal expression. Interestingly, most indivi¬duals believe that they are less likely than others to fall victim to various health risks. The occurrence of this comparative optimism implies that people’s interpretation of verbal chances terms may depend on whether they are used in messages that focus on their own risks versus in messages that focus on the risks of other people. In order to test this potential and thus far untested consequence of comparative optimism, participants were presented with probabilistic statements describing the likelihood of various health problems either in their own life or in the life of the average other. For each of these statements, they were asked to indicate the numerical probability meant by the chance term. In line with the expectations, numerical probabilities associated with verbal chance terms occurring in statements about one’s own risks were generally lower than numerical probabilities associated with verbal chance terms being used to describe the average other’s risks. At first sight, the obtained self-other difference was quite small, suggesting that its relevance for health education may be quite limited. However, methodological and ethical constraints may have limited the magnitude of the effects being obtained.