Attributions in Explanations of Risk Estimates

Document Type




Format of Original

15 p.

Publication Date



SAGE Publications

Source Publication

Public Understanding of Science

Source ISSN


Original Item ID

doi: 10.1088/0963-6625/11/3/303


In the spring of 1993, nearly 40 percent of Milwaukee-area residents experienced a nationally publicized outbreak of cryptosporidium, a parasite that infested the metropolitan drinking water supply. Using open-ended survey data gathered from 610 adult residents in the wake of that outbreak, this study looks at factors related to the ways in which people make sense of their quantitative personal risk estimates. The concepts of informal reasoning and attribution aided this endeavor. Analysis of open-ended comments about the risk of getting ill from a waterborne parasite indicated that explanations of personal risk were consistent with predictions made by attribution theory. Good outcomes, which included having remained healthy during the outbreak, were associated with a greater likelihood that respondents would attribute causation to themselves, while one specific bad outcome, having experienced the illness, was associated with a greater likelihood that respondents would attribute causation externally. This study also examined predictors of whether respondents employed probabilistic language in those attributions. Analysis indicated that income was positively related to the use of probability-oriented language, while age and race were negatively related to the use of such language (i.e., persons of color and older individuals were less likely to use such language).


Public Understanding of Science, Vol. 11, No. 3 (July 2002): 243-257. DOI.