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The University of Southampton
Centre for Risk Research

Understanding and improving judgments of synergistic risks

In recent years, Dr Ian Dawson, the Centre Co-Ordinator, has conducted a number of experimental studies into the extent to which people understand that certain combinations of hazards present synergistic risks. He has conducted this research with Professor Johnnie Johnson, the Director of the Centre for Risk Research, and with Dr Michelle Luke, a Reader in Organisational Behaviour at the University of Sussex.

Some drug combinations present synergistic risks
Dangerous drug combinations

A 'synergistic risk' is when two or more hazardous substances or activities interact to create a risk that is greater than the sum of the risk that each substance/activity presents on its own. For example, from a statistically perspective, driving a car is a relatively low risk activity and consuming a moderate amount of alcohol is also a relatively low risk activity. However, when driving and alcohol are combined the risk is greatly increased. Specifically, because the risk is greater than 'the risk of driving' added to 'the risk from moderate alcohol use' it is a synergistic risk. Numerous research studies show that a range of factors can interact to present synergistic risks in health, social and environmental contexts. The concern is that if people fail to apprecaite these harmful syenrgies then they may also fail to take appropriate precautionary actions to manage the risks.

A combination that presents a synergistic risk for some cancers
Cigarettes and alcohol

In his research, Ian Dawson has examined the extent to which people understand the synergistic risks that are attributable to certain harmful combinations. He has specifically focused on developig new psychometric measures of individual's perceptions of synergistic risks and has successfully identified an effective method for helping people to better understand this complex risk-related concept. More recently, he has started a new collaborative research project with Dr. Simone Dolhe, ETH Zurich, that explores the extent to which individuals' understand that certain food combinations present synergistic benefits and which examines the effect that knowledge of synergistic risks can have on risk-related decision behaviours.

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