Author Archives: Sarah Read

About Sarah Read

Senior at Carnegie Mellon University, Bachelors of Humanities and Arts in Decision Science and Industrial Design.

Numeracy and Risk

One of the things that has come up a few times over the first half of the semester is the ability of people to correctly interpret and understand the numbers in the statistics we’ve talked about. I came across a couple papers that attempt to explore the relationship between risk perception and numeracy.

The first paper by Schwartz et al. looked at how women of varying numeracy levels were able to use and understand quantitative information about mammograms. They found that basic numeracy in their sample was quite low (tested on three basic questions that determined numeracy – only 16% of the women could answer all three correctly). When provided with risk reduction information, most women overestimated the effectiveness of screening mammography. Higher numeracy scores were also associated with accuracy in applying the risk reduction information. They also found a large improvement in accuracy by adding the baseline risk to absolute risk reduction data. By adding the baseline risk, people are better able to understand how the screening will help them personally.

The second paper by Dieckmann et al. explores how decisionmakers of varying numeracy levels utilize narrative evidence and probabilities when making risk judgments about a potential terrorist attack. When presented with simple likelihood estimates and no narrative evidence, people with lower levels of numeracy perceived greater risk. They also found support for the idea that less numerate decisionmakers paid less attention to likelihood information when also presented with narrative evidence (they also rated the narrative evidence as higher in usefulness, knowledge, and trust). A second study conducted by the authors helped to examine how decisionmakers used both the narrative and the likelihood evidence when both were present. Less numerate decisionmakers were again found to believe that the attack was more likely than more numerate decisionmakers.


Schwartz, L. M., Woloshin, S., Black, W. C., & Welch, H. G. (1 December 1997). The Role of Numeracy in Understanding the Benefit of Screening Mammography. Annals of Internal Medicine, 127(11), 966-972.
Dieckmann, N. F., Slovic, P., & Peters, E. M. (2009). The Use of Narrative Evidence and Explicit Likelihood by Decisionmakers Varying in Numeracy. Risk Analysis, 29(10), 1473-1488.

Project Proposal Update

After doing a bit of secondary research and letting the whole situation stew over the weekend, I am beginning to think that scoping my project down to a more manageable size is a good idea. Through my Risk Perception & Communication class, I am seeing a lot of writing and research about health risks. I’m wondering if there is a way I can connect the research on perception and communication of health risks to framing the gun safety issue as a public health problem. I think going back and skimming through Private Guns, Public Health will help me.

Similarly, after presenting to the students of Suguru Ishizaki’s Document Design class, I think focusing on a specific demographic or population of people will be useful. I hope to then test my design explorations with that given audience and provide insight into how useful the literature research is to the actual outcome.

Individual Project Brief: Risk Perception, Statistics & Advocacy

One of the things that stuck out to me from the beginning of our research around this issue is the amount of statistics that were introduced to us. With my background in social science I’m fairly comfortable with numbers and statistics, but I wonder if the way they’re currently presented is the best to communicate the risks surrounding gun control.

My goal for this project is to use the risk perception and communication literature from the social sciences to support design explorations around statistics and factual information that can be persuasive around the gun safety issue. An important part of this will be making scientific data more accessible to certain audiences. I’d also like to draw inspiration from other successful advocacy campaigns that have used persuasive statistics.

The output for this project will most likely a research report that discusses all the different elements and how they relate to each other in terms of people understanding statistics. An important component of the project will be synthesizing all this information to make it understandable and simple in the report and also in our class’ publication.

Legislation & the Gun Industry

In case you needed anymore convincing that the problem of gun violence is extremely interconnected in America.

This article by Business Insider has three interactive maps (using 2012 data):

  • how many people are employed in the gun industry in each of the states
  • how many background checks the FBI did on people wanting to buy guns in each state
  • how the number of background checks done by the FBI increased or decreased from 2011

And here’s some important numbers from the article:

  • in 2012, the American gun industry totaled about $12 billion
  • in 2011, American gun companies paid more than $5 billion in federal, state and excise taxes
  • 98,759 people were employed by the gun industry in 2012
  • there are 3,505 people employed in the gun industry in Pennsylvania
  • the FBI did 19,463,862 background checks in 2012 for people wanting to buy guns (over 3 million more than 2011)
  • 968,534 people wanted to buy guns in PA in 2012 (249,600 more than in 2011)

The Role of Behavioral Experience in Judging Risks

Here’s another research paper from my Risk Perception and Communication class. I think it confirms a little of the anecdotal and statistical evidence we’ve been hearing. The main finding of this by Halpern-Felsher et al. is that people who have experience with some sort of risk area (for example, having been in a lightning storm) are less likely to believe that they will experience a negative outcome as a result of that experience (less likely to believe that they will die in a lightning storm that someone who has never been in a lightning storm). They tested this on a number of experiences and outcomes, including natural disasters, alcohol-related and sexual experiences.

This article is really interesting because one of the findings that really stuck out in my mind from Private Guns, Public Health was that people who went through gun safety training (which included safe storage practices) were more likely to store their gun in an unsafe way (unlocked, loaded, in a spot where a child could easily get to it). The results of this study go along with this result – perhaps people who have spent more time getting to know the ins and outs of a gun are less scared of it, and thus perhaps they don’t think it’s as dangerous anymore.

Gender, Race, and Perception of Environmental Health Risks

During one of my Risk Perception and Communication classes, we discussed how different people see risks. One of the most interesting things I learned was that white men tend to see less risk in the world than white women or minority men and women. This is obviously relevant to risk communication because it’s necessary to know who your audience is in order to get them to understand a risk. I think it’s also pretty relevant to our projects – not everyone is going to be moved or called to action by the same story or statistics.

Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence is the home of the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. I had a conversation with Danielle, Michelle, Jisoo, and Lena today, and we had questions about different policies that exist and the extent of the laws. I came across this organization and was surprised by how accessible all the information is. There are even a lot of celebrity endorsements for ending gun violence, from Jon Hamm to Beyoncé!

The LCPGV provides information on each of the state’s gun policies and has a special section for each Child Access Prevention Laws. I was also surprised that so many states have CAP Laws, especially notoriously pro-gun states like Texas. But, as Danielle postulated earlier, perhaps the residents of states where guns are more ingrained into daily life better understand the importance of gun safety. This is a great resource to have especially as we navigate the complicated world of policymaking.