Correlates of unrealistic risk beliefs in a nationally representative sample

Erika A. Waters, William M.P. Klein, Richard P. Moser, Mandi Yu, William R. Waldron, Timothy S. McNeel, Andrew N. Freedman

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34 Scopus citations


Unrealistically optimistic or pessimistic risk perceptions may be associated with maladaptive health behaviors. This study characterized factors associated with unrealistic optimism (UO) and unrealistic pessimism (UP) about breast cancer. Data from the 2005 National Health Interview Survey were analyzed (N = 14,426 women). After accounting for objective risk status, many (43.8%) women displayed UO, 12.3% displayed UP, 34.5% had accurate risk perceptions (their perceived risk matched their calculated risk), and 9.5% indicated "don't know/no response." Multivariate multinomial logistic regression indicated that UO was associated with higher education and never smoking. UP was associated with lower education, lower income, being non-Hispanic Black, having ≥3 comorbidities, current smoking, and being overweight. UO was more likely to emerge in younger and older than in middle-aged individuals. UO and UP are associated with different demographic, health, and behavioral characteristics. Population segments that are already vulnerable to negative health outcomes displayed more UP than less vulnerable populations.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)225-235
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Behavioral Medicine
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jun 1 2011


  • Breast cancer
  • Health behavior
  • Unrealistic optimism
  • Unrealistic pessimism

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    Waters, E. A., Klein, W. M. P., Moser, R. P., Yu, M., Waldron, W. R., McNeel, T. S., & Freedman, A. N. (2011). Correlates of unrealistic risk beliefs in a nationally representative sample. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 34(3), 225-235.