Effect of Personal Experience on Self-Protective Behavior

Authors: Neil D. Weinstein, Rutgers University

Publication: Psychological Bulletin

Year: 1989

Focus Area: Prevention

Relevance: Prevention efforts may be more effective if they communicate specific, personalized information about risks and victimization. In addition, the length of time in which a victim is inspired to take strong preventative action is quite short. This poses a challenge to long-term fraud prevention.

Summary: Personal experience informs perceptions of risk – people who have never experienced a flood are less inclined to make necessary preparations for a flood, while those who have recently experienced a disaster take up previously ignored efforts at disaster prevention. While the relationship between experience and risk awareness is complex, the author proposes that understanding the experiences of victims could help to improve prevention efforts.

  • People who have experienced a hazard (natural disaster, crime, etc) are more interested in preventing that hazard from happening again and feel that they are more at risk than they previously felt.
  • Vulnerability is not generalized – people feel more at risk for hazards similar to the hazard they experienced, but do not feel more risk of other kinds of hazards.
  • The effect of personal experience to increase prevention efforts is short-lived and more likely to be evidenced in single actions, like buying insurance, rather than repeat actions, like wearing a seatbelt.
  • “[…] programs emphasizing concrete, personalized information about likelihood, severity, and precautions; programs attacking unrealistic optimism; and programs finding ways to increase hazard salience will be more successful than will traditional attempts to disseminate general hazard information to the public.”

Abstract (from the authors): This article seeks to further our understanding of self-protective behavior by examining the effects of a particularly powerful stimulus to action: personal experience. It reviews the effects of automobile accidents on seat belt use, criminal victimization other than rape on individual crime prevention efforts, natural hazards experience on both natural hazards preparedness and compliance with evacuation warnings, and myocardial infarction on smoking. Theories suggesting mechanisms that could link personal experience to behavior are described, and data concerning the effects of experience on some key variables in these theories are discussed. Tentative propositions are offered to resolve the many apparent discrepancies in this literature. These propositions concern the effects of experience on risk perceptions, the influence of experience on risk salience, the specificity of responses to victimization, and the duration of experience effects.

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