Comparative Optimism: Relative Risk Perception and Behavioral Response to Lead Exposure

  • Bernabas WoldeEmail author
  • Pankaj Lal
  • Melissa Harclerode
  • Alessandra Rossi


Despite their true exposure, individuals with Comparative Optimism consider themselves less prone to the adverse health effects of pollution. Since individuals’ response to a given environmental risk is affected by their appraisal of the risk, those with Comparative Optimism may be less likely to engage in prescribed behaviors or to do so at the urgency required of the given risk. Such limited or delayed response can amplify the risk instead of reducing it. Thus, there is a need to understand if Comparative Optimism applies to pollutants with irreversible adverse health effects as it would impose a higher burden. There is also a need to know which segments of the population are prone to Comparative Optimism and how it manifests in terms of activities that can enhance exposure. Doing so will allow public health professionals address gaps in risk communication and management efforts and help improve environmental health outcomes. Using survey data, we assess the presence, behavioral and socioeconomic predictors, and implications of Comparative Optimism for communicating and managing lead exposure risk in an urban setting. Our results indicate that a large share of the population has Comparative Optimism for lead exposure, despite living in a city that has a relatively higher lead poisoning burden. We also found that ethnicity, income, length of stay at residence, among others, predict Comparative Optimism, suggesting that Comparative Optimism may predict elevated blood lead level.


  • Despite their city’s high lead poisoning burden, many underrate their relative risk.

  • Underrating relative risk associates with exposure-enhancing activities.

  • Profiling such individuals could help in targeted risk communication and management.

  • Risk communication efforts should include exposure levels of a reference group.


Lead exposure Risk perception Behavioral response Risk communication and management Outreach 


Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Bernabas Wolde
    • 1
    Email author
  • Pankaj Lal
    • 1
  • Melissa Harclerode
    • 2
  • Alessandra Rossi
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Earth and Environmental StudiesMontclair State UniversityMontclairUSA
  2. 2.CDM SmithEdisonUSA

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