Skin Health

Fear Of Illness Can Be A Good Thing

When it comes to skin cancer, many people are influenced by fear, not statistics, to use sunscreen.

“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 Marc Kiviniemi, lead researcher and assistant professor of community health and health behavior in the University of Buffalo’s 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’re potentially missing a rich influence on behavior when interventions don’t address feelings.”

Kiviniemi’s study, published in the Journal of Behavioral Research, looked at statistics from a nationwide study conducted by the National Cancer Institute. Nearly 1,500 participants with no personal history of skin cancer were asked about their sunscreen use. They were also asked about their perceived risk and worry for getting skin cancer.

Thirty-two percent reported that they never used it, and 14 percent said they always used it. The more a person was worried, the likelier he or she was to use sunscreen.

Researchers say that both “affective risk” – fear and worry about a health issue – and “cognitive risk” – knowledge about the health-issue statistics – influence behaviors. But, Kiviniemi says, they are often considered opposing reasons rather than two elements that can work together.

“These findings show that clinicians might want to think more about feelings when encouraging people to use sunscreen,” says Kiviniemi. “In addition to providing educational information about risk, encouraging people to consider how they feel about cancer and how worried they are about it might inspire preventive behaviors.”

Kiviniemi will conduct further research to examine the same relationship factors in other health issues, such as colonoscopies and use of condoms.

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