THE EFFECT OF EMPATHY ON RISK PERCEPTION FOR HEALTH VIGNETTES
Method(s): 40 vignettes were presented describing health conditions. 50 participants viewed vignettes describing an individual sufferer and 50 participants viewed vignettes describing the condition without reference to an individual. Each participant rated the perceived risk of each condition for likelihood and severity and then completed the empathy quotient (Baron-Cohen & Wheelwright, 2004).
Result(s): Perceived severity was greater when participants viewed vignettes which described an individual sufferer compared to vignettes which didn't describe an individual sufferer, but only for participants with a low empathy quotient. Participants with a high empathy quotient were unaffected by the presentation of individual vs general risk. There was no effect for perceived likelihood.
Conclusion(s): Greater perceived risk for individual sufferers was located in greater perceived severity. This severity effect is associated with empathy for the sufferer. People who are already highly empathic may consider the full severity of a health condition in terms of its consequences without the context of an individual sufferer but those who are less empathic are better able to think about the severity of a health condition within that context. Empathy informs risk severity judgments. This is important because unofficial health information (e.g. news reports) are often presented in the context of individual sufferers but official sources typically present health information in general and statistical terms.