My research is in cross-cultural, health, and social psychology. My focus is primarily on understanding why smart people do dumb things especially in the area of health. Much of my researched investigates the causes, consequences, and correlates of optimistic bias as well as other health-related behaviors and risk cognitions.
My current research is funded by a 3 year NIH grant from the National Cancer Institute. I conducted two studies in the U.S. (a smoking-prohibitive culture where smoking is moralized) and Denmark (a smoking–lenient culture where smoking is much less moralized.) One study, a qualitative interview study among U.S. and Danish smokers –examined whether smokers’ perceptions of being targets of moralization were associated with risk perceptions of smoking and willingness to quit (Helweg-Larsen, Tobias and Cerban, 201). The other study – a longitudinal survey study among representative samples of U.S. and Danish smokers and non-smokers –examined the extent to which individual moralization predicts risk perceptions of smoking and how these factors among smokers predict willingness to quit.
My research has previously been funded by a 4-year $4.8 million grant awarded by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to a collaborative team of investigators from Dickinson College, Cheyney University, and the University of Pennsylvania. The project (named CHORD: Collaboration in hypertension to reduce disparities) examined economic and non-economic barriers to inadequate control of blood pressure among African Americans and low income adults. In terms of risk perception, my students and I examined the relationship between medication adherence and risk perceptions of stroke and heart attack, worry and risk perceptions, socioeconomic status differences in risk perceptions, and self-rated health and risk perceptions.
Below I describe my past research. Click here for reprints of the published papers.
Moderators of the Optimistic Bias
Overview of Moderators
In a review paper published in Personality and Social Psychology Review (Helweg-Larsen & Shepperd, 2001), we reviewed the literature on variables that moderate (increase or decrease) the optimistic bias and examine whether the moderators influence the optimistic bias by affecting people's personal estimates (called personal risk moderators) or by affecting people's estimates of the average person's risk (called target risk moderators). Moderators associated with negative affect (negative mood, dysphoria, trait and state anxiety, event severity, and proximity of feedback) and control related moderators (perceived control and prior experience) appear primarily to affect personal risk estimates. Positive mood affects target risk estimates. Finally, moderators that surround the comparison process appear to have different effects. Specifically, the type of comparison target appears to affect target risk estimates, whereas attention to personal risk-related behaviors affects personal risk estimates. This review continues to serve as a source of future hypotheses regarding how variables moderate the optimistic bias.
I examined a specific moderator, namely perceived control in a paper published in Psychology and Health (Klein & Helweg-Larsen, 2002). We conducted a meta-analysis of 27 independent samples to examine the size of this relationship and examine what variables moderated the relationship. Greater perceived control was significantly related to greater optimistic bias. However, the relationship was moderated by participant nationality, student status, risk status, and the type of optimistic bias. Perceived control continues to be an important variable in my research, especially in examining the effect of experience on the optimistic bias.
I have examined the effects of personal experience on the optimistic bias in several papers.
In a paper about the 1994 Northridge (CA) earthquake (Helweg-Larsen, 1999) I investigated whether the optimistic bias was as a function of having personal experience with the event. University students who experienced the earthquake were asked one week after the quake about their optimistic biases about earthquakes and a variety of other events. Students were followed every two weeks over the next 5 months. In addition, two new groups of students were surveyed at 2 and 4 months after the earthquake. As I expected no optimistic bias for earthquakes was present immediately after the earthquake (but other events did show the bias). Contrary to previous research no bias for earthquakes was present even 5 months after the earthquake. Those who had personal experience with injury or monetary loss as a result of the earthquake showed less optimism about injury in future earthquakes than those with no personal experience of injury or loss.
In a second paper on experience we examined risk perceptions of dating violence among college students (Helweg-Larsen, Harding, & Kleinman, 2008). Despite a great deal of research on dating violence (DV), little research has examined women’s risk perceptions with respect to DV. Results from a survey of college women (N=192) indicated that women showed optimistic comparative risk judgments in that they thought their personal risk was lower than other women’s risk of experiencing future DV. Depressive symptoms and greater experience with DV, sexual abuse, and violence socialization were associated with elevated personal risk ratings. The relationship between previous DV experience and personal risk ratings was partially mediated by depressive symptoms. We also examined personal experience in romantic relationship (Helweg-Larsen, Harding and Klein, 2011) as described below.
Demographic moderators: Gender, Race and Socioeconomic Status
In a paper on gender differences in romantic relationships we found gender differences in how optimistic college students were with respect to their future likelihood of having a happy marriage or avoiding divorce (Helweg-Larsen, Harding and Klein, 2011). Men exhibited greater comparative optimism than women for having a happy marriage but not for getting divorced. For having a happy marriage and avoiding divorce, men exhibited greater personal optimism relative to women. Importantly experience (with parental divorce) moderated the gender difference in personal optimism and perceived control partially mediated the gender difference in comparative optimism (but only for having a happy marriage) and in personal optimism (for both having a happy marriage and avoiding divorce).
Risk biases such as comparative optimism (thinking one is better off than similar others) and risk inaccuracy (misestimating one’s risk compared to one’s calculated risk) for health outcomes are common. In this paper we investigated racial or socioeconomic differences in these risk biases (Peterson, Helweg-Larsen, Volpp, & Kimmel, 2012). Results from a survey of individuals with poorly controlled hypertension (N=813) indicated that participants showed (1) comparative optimism for heart attack risk by underestimating their heart attack risk compared to similar others, and (2) risk inaccuracy by overestimating their heart attack risk compared to their calculated heart attack risk. More highly educated participants were more comparatively optimistic because they rated their personal risk as lower; education was not related to risk inaccuracy. Neither race nor the federal poverty level was related to risk biases. Worry partially mediated the relationship between education and personal risk.
Perceived Risk and Behavioral Intentions
One persistent question in the area of risk perception is whether perceived risk predicts behavioral change. In this research we investigated women’s risk assessments for intimate partner violence and the potential behavioral consequences of victim risk perception (Harding & Helweg-Larsen, 2009). Results from a survey of women in a domestic violence shelter (N = 56) indicated that women perceived lower risk of future violence if the abusive relationship were to end and higher risk of violence if it were to continue. Certain abuse experiences were related to elevated perceptions of personal risk for future violence. Further, perceived personal risk predicted the women’s intention to terminate their relationship upon leaving shelter. These results may inform interventions preventing intimate partner violence.
Culture and Perceived Risk
Prototype Perception among Children
In a study of Danish and American adolescents (ages 13-15 years) we examined prevalence estimates and prototype perceptions related to health risk behaviors (Gibbons, Helweg-Larsen, & Gerrard, 1995). We found that Americans were more likely than Danes to self-enhance. Furthermore, Americans overestimated the prevalence of the various risk behaviors (among their peers) more so than Danes and those estimates were more closely linked to their own risk behaviors for the American sample. Perceptions of prototypes associated with a particular risk behaviors were assessed and predicted smoking behavior and willingness to engage in unprotected sexual intercourse for both samples.
Acculturation and Smoking Risk Perceptions
Little research has focused on acculturation and perceptions of health-related risks. In this study (Helweg-Larsen & Stancioff, 2008) we investigated acculturation and risk perceptions of heart attack and lung cancer among a group of refugees. Questionnaires were distributed to a sample of Bosnian refugees living in the United States (N=55). Results indicated that smokers thought they were less at risk than other smokers and no more at risk than non-smokers, whereas non-smokers did not think they were less at risk than other non-smokers. Greater acculturation was associated with greater perception of smokers’ risk of heart attack and lung cancer. Smoking cessation interventions with refugees should incorporate culturally appropriate risk information.
Risk Perceptions among Danish and U.S. Young Adults
In this paper, we examined risk perceptions of lung cancer among smokers and non-smokers in a smoking-lenient (Denmark) and a smoking-prohibitive (the United States) culture (Helweg-Larsen & Nielsen, 2008). Results revealed cross-cultural differences suggesting that Danish smokers showed greater risk minimization than U.S. smokers. In addition, in both countries the risk of a typical smoker was rated as lower by smokers than non-smokers and smokers rated their personal risk as lower than they rated the risk of the typical smoker. Cross-cultural differences in moralization of smoking might be one explanation for these findings.
Risk Perception and Moralization among Danish and U.S. Smokers
In this research we explored role that culture plays in smokers’ description of their risk perceptions and experiences as targets of moralization (Helweg-Larsen, Tobias, and Cerban, 2010). We conducted in-depth qualitative interviews with 15 smokers each from Denmark (a smoking-lenient culture) and the USA (a smoking-prohibitive culture). Smokers said they were well aware of the risks of smoking yet minimized the risks of active and passive smoking; Danes were particularly likely to minimize these risks. Smokers also described many experiences as targets of moralization and accepted some elements of moralized attitudes although overall Danes more strongly rejected moralized opinions. This research points to the importance of considering cultural influences on moralization and risk perception of smoking.
Stability of the Optimistic Bias
In a paper published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin we (Shepperd, Helweg-Larsen, and Ortega, 2003) examined the stability of optimistic beliefs, both across time and across types of events. Both studies found strong evidence for consistency across time and some evidence for consistency across events. The consistency across time and events was moderated by experience. Specifically, when viewed together the studies suggest that experience produces an initial decrease in the consistency of comparative judgments (Study 2), followed by greater consistency in subsequent judgments (Study 1).
Negative Consequences of a Pessimistic Bias
The optimistic bias is easy to demonstrate - people generally believe that they are less at risk than other people. Generally people do not show a pessimistic bias - believing they are at greater risk than other people. In an article published in Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology (Helweg-Larsen, Sadeghian & Webb, 2002) we examined how people are viewed when they display a pessimistic bias. Two experiments showed that pessimistically biased individuals were less socially accepted and that this lack of acceptance originated in the presumption that pessimistically biased people are also hopeless, sad, and depressed. This research suggests one potential reason why people are optimistically biased, namely that pessimistically biased people are stigmatized and socially rejected.