Impact of selective evidence presentation on judgments of health inequality trends: an experimental study


Reducing health inequalities is a key objective for many governments and public health organizations. Whether inequalities are measured on the absolute (difference) or relative (ratio) scale can have a significant impact on judgments about whether health inequalities are increasing or decreasing, but both of these measures are not often presented in empirical studies. In this study we investigated the impact of selective presentation of health inequality measures on judgments of health inequality trends among 40 university undergraduates. We randomized participants to see either a difference or ratio measure of health inequality alongside raw mortality rates in 5 different scenarios. At baseline there were no differences between treatment groups in assessments of inequality trends, but selective exposure to the same raw data augmented with ratio versus difference inequality graphs altered participants' assessments of inequality change. When absolute inequality decreased and relative inequality increased, exposure to ratio measures increased the probability of concluding that inequality had increased from 32.5% to 70%, but exposure to difference measures did not (35% vs. 25%). Selective exposure to ratio versus difference inequality graphs thus increased the difference between groups in concluding that inequality had increased from 2.5% (95% CI -9.5% to 14.5%) to 45% (95% CI 29.4 to 60.6). A similar pattern was evident for other scenarios where absolute and relative inequality trends gave conflicting results. In cases where measures of absolute and relative inequality both increased or both decreased, we did not find any evidence that assignment to ratio vs. difference graphs had an impact on assessments of inequality change. Selective reporting of measures of health inequality has the potential to create biased judgments of progress in ameliorating health inequalities.

PLoS One
Sam Harper
Sam Harper
Associate Professor of Epidemiology

My research interests include impact evaluation, reproducible research, and social epidemiology.