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Research Highlights

People remember health risk information better after imagining a personalized story, studies find

Adults remember health-related risk information better after being asked to imagine a personally relevant story, according to an NIA-supported project at Duke University. The researchers noted that their personalized imagination technique was especially effective for older adults. Findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and Nature Aging.Graphic of a drawing on a chalkboard shows risk meter with low on one side and high on the other side, using a gauge to show the level of risk.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Americans have received life-saving information about how to minimize their risk of getting an infection. Messages about reducing risk have included getting a vaccine, wearing a mask, washing hands often, avoiding crowds indoors, and keeping a safe distance from others. But the risk of viral transmission varies with the infection rate in the community. In addition, the understanding of personal risk may vary by age group, which could lead to unsafe behaviors.

The Duke University research team set out to change people’s perception of risk for COVID-19 to match the actual risk in their community. Part of the project was to test a method designed to help adults make decisions to change behaviors that might put them at risk. The team also compared the method’s relative effectiveness among younger and older adults.

The researchers asked participants to estimate the likelihood of being exposed to someone with COVID-19 during a variety of activities in their community, such as going to a grocery store that has 25 shoppers. Participants then received the correct answers for those specific activities. Most participants underestimated their risk of exposure, although some overestimated their risk. For the next part of the study, one group of participants were asked to imagine hosting several friends and family members in their home and learning the next day that one visitor had tested positive for COVID-19. The other participants were asked to imagine other scenarios, which were not personalized to include them.

When participants who were asked to imagine the personal scenario repeated this exercise one to three weeks later, they made more accurate assessments of their risk of being exposed to COVID-19. According to the researchers, these findings suggest that the method of asking people to imagine a personalized story can help people learn to reevaluate risks and to change their perspectives on managing the COVID-19 pandemic.

The researchers also found that older adults were more influenced by the personal scenario to increase risk perception than younger adults. The authors concluded that older adults can benefit from a personalized imagination exercise for learning about health-related risks and for aiding their decision-making. For future studies, this method of personalizing an imagination exercise can be applied to other public health risks beyond COVID-19, such as avoiding seasonal flu.


Sinclair AH, et al. Imagining a personalized scenario selectively increases perceived risk of viral transmission for older adults. Nature Aging. 2021; 1:677–683.

Sinclair AH, et al. Pairing facts with imagined consequences improves pandemic-related risk perception. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 2021; 10;118(32):e2100970118. doi: 10.1073/pnas.2100970118.

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