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Health Decisions Are Influenced By Good And Bad News

Update Date: Oct 30, 2013 12:44 PM EDT

Being unrealistically optimistic or unrealistically pessimistic may influence the health decisions you make after receiving news that is worse or better than expected according to a new study.   

"The question reveals a tension between the goals of health-behavior promotion and informed patient decision-making that has plagued researchers in several health domains, most notably with regard to women's often overly pessimistic perceptions of their breast cancer risk," study authors Kate Sweeny, assistant professor of psychology at the University of California Riverside, and co-author Amanda Dillard, assistant professor of psychology at Grand Valley State University, said in their study.

According to UC Riverside, for the study psychologists told participants that they would test them for toxin exposure found in everyday products.

Researchers found that those who received news that was worse than expected acted more responsively to changing their behavior in order to prevent an incident in the future.  Meanwhile, those who received better news than they originally planned to hear acted more reluctant to change.

According to the researchers, all of the participants received the same health feedback, the only difference were the participant's expectations due to their characteristics.

"Our findings add critical pieces to the previously incomplete picture of the consequences of expectation disconfirmation," Sweeny and Dillard said. "Ours is the first experimental investigation of the relationship between expectation disconfirmation and behavioral intentions in the context of personal risk perceptions, and the first study to examine the process by which intentions might rise or fall in response to unexpected risk feedback."

Researchers found that the difference in health perceptions in people has a lot to do with how they react.

"Our findings point to an important tradeoff people face when managing their expectations as they await feedback: maintaining optimism leaves people open to disappointment, but bracing for the worst may undermine future motivation to improve," Sweeny and Dillard said. "... It seems that people find the emotional consequences of being caught off-guard more compelling than the potential for elation to undermine their motivation to change their behavior in response to feedback."

The findings are published in the journal Risk Analysis: An International Journal.

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