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Member Research and Reports

Member Research and Reports

SUNY Buffalo Research Shows Fear, Not Data, Motivates Sunscreen Users

We are often told that worrying can be harmful to one’s health. But University at Buffalo SUNY School of Public Health and Health Professions researchers say when it comes to preventing skin cancer, a little fear is good for you.

10053 Public Health, Marc Kiviniemi, Portrait

[Photo: Dr. Marc Kiviniemi]

In a study published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine, the UB researchers found that fear and worry about skin cancer had a bigger influence on people’s use of sunscreen than information about the statistical likelihood of developing the disease.

“Most health behavior studies don’t account for the more visceral, emotional reactions that lead people to do risky behaviors, like eat junk food or ignore the protective benefits of sunscreen,” says Dr. Marc Kiviniemi, lead researcher and assistant professor of community health and health behavior in the UB School of Public Health and Health Professions.

“This study is important because most of what we do in public health communications focuses on spreading knowledge and information. By not addressing emotions, we are potentially missing a rich influence on behavior when interventions do not address feelings.”

Dr. Kiviniemi’s study analyzed data from a nationwide study conducted by the National Cancer Institute.  Nearly 1,500 randomly selected participants with no personal history of skin cancer were asked about their sunscreen use, and questioned to gauge their perceived risk and worry for getting skin cancer.

Frequency of sunscreen use varied, with 32 percent reporting ‘‘never’’ using it, and 14 percent ‘‘always’’ using it.  Education was associated with increased sunscreen use and men and non-White participants were both less likely to use sunscreen.

In each case, however, worry more directly influenced people’s behavior than informational findings, and increasing degrees of worry were associated with increased sunscreen use.

“Our research looked at the interplay of emotions and facts in decision making– that is, how do cognitive and affective risks jointly work to influence behavior?” says Dr. Kiviniemi. “The nature of their interrelation as an influence on behavior has not been examined until this study.”

UB researchers say that affective risk – fear and worry about a health issue, in this case skin cancer – and cognitive risk – the informational component – are both known influences on people’s health behaviors.