Predicting Cancer‐Prevention Behavior: Disentangling the Effects of Risk Aversion and Risk Perceptions

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Risk Analysis

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Experimental and survey research spanning the last two decades concludes that people who are more risk tolerant are more likely to engage in risky health activities such as smoking and heavy alcohol consumption, and are more likely to be obese. Subjective perceptions of the risk associated with different activities have also been found to be associated with health behaviors. While there are numerous studies that link risk perceptions with risky behavior, it is notable that none of these controls for risk aversion. Similarly, studies that control for risk aversion fail to control for risk misperceptions. We use a survey of 474 men and women to investigate the influence of risk aversion, risk misperceptions, and cognitive ability on the choice to engage in behaviors that either increase or mitigate cancer risk. We measure optimism in two dimensions: baseline optimists are those who inaccurately believe their cancer risk to be below its expert‐assessed level, while control optimists are those who believe they can reduce their risk of cancer (by changing their lifestyle choices) to a greater extent than is actually the case. Our results indicate that baseline optimism is significantly and negatively correlated with subjects′ tendencies to engage in cancer‐risk‐reducing behaviors, and positively correlated with risky behaviors. Subjects’ control misperceptions also appear to play a role in their tendency to engage in risky and prevention behaviors. When controlling for both of these types of risk misperception, risk aversion plays a much smaller role in determining health behaviors than found in past studies.


Baseline optimism; Cancer-prevention behavior; Control optimism





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