Ambiguity and unintended inferences about risk messages for COVID-19.

Dawn L Holford, Marie Juanchich, Miroslav Sirota

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review


The World Health Organization established that the risk of suffering severe symptoms from coronavirus disease (COVID-19) is higher for some groups, but this does not mean their chances of infection are higher. However, public health messages often highlight the “increased risk” for these groups such that the risk could be interpreted as being about contracting an infection rather than suffering severe symptoms from the illness (as intended). Stressing the risk for vulnerable groups may also prompt inferences that individuals not highlighted in the message have lower risk than previously believed. In five studies, we investigated how U.K. residents interpreted such risk messages about COVID-19 (n = 396, n = 399, n = 432, n = 474) and a hypothetical new virus (n = 454). Participants recognized that the risk was about experiencing severe symptoms, but over half also believed that the risk was about infection, and had a corresponding heightened perception that vulnerable people were more likely to be infected. Risk messages that clarified the risk event reduced misinterpretations for a hypothetical new virus, but existing misinterpretations of coronavirus risks were resistant to correction. We discuss the need for greater clarity in public health messaging by distinguishing between the two risk events.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)486-508
JournalJournal of Experimental Psychology: Applied
Issue number3
Early online date19 May 2022
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2022


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