Communicating Uncertainties About the Effects of Medical Interventions Using Different Display Formats

Research output: Journal contributionsJournal articlesResearchpeer-review


Communicating uncertainties in scientific evidence is important to accurately reflect scientific knowledge, increase public understanding of uncertainty, and to signal transparency and honesty in reporting. While techniques have been developed to facilitate the communication of uncertainty, many have not been empirically tested, compared for communicating different types of uncertainty, or their effects on different cognitive, trust, and behavioral outcomes have not been evaluated. The present study examined how a point estimate, imprecise estimate, conflicting estimates, or a statement about the lack of evidence about treatment effects, influenced participant's responses to communications about medical evidence. For each type of uncertainty, we adapted three display formats to communicate the information: tables, bar graphs, and icon arrays. We compared participant's best estimates of treatment effects, as well as effects on recall, subjective evaluations (understandability and usefuleness), certainty perceptions, perceptions of trustworthiness of the information, and behavioral intentions. We did not find any detrimental effects from communicating imprecision or conflicting estimates relative to a point estimate across any outcome. Furthermore, there were more favorable responses to communicating imprecision or conflicting estimates relative to lack of evidence, where participants estimated the treatment would improve outcomes by 30–50% relative to a placebo. There were no differences across display formats, suggesting that, if well-designed, it may not matter which format is used. Future research on specific display formats or uncertainty types and with larger sample sizes would be needed to detect small effects. Implications for the communication of uncertainty are discussed.

Original languageEnglish
JournalRisk Analysis
Issue number12
Pages (from-to)2220-2239
Number of pages20
Publication statusPublished - 01.12.2021
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 The Authors. Risk Analysis published by Wiley Periodicals LLC on behalf of Society for Risk Analysis