Outside of their practical contexts, simple messages quickly lose their meaning. Recall what it is like to find an old Post-it Note: “Don’t forget the disk!” – What disk? The risk is great that we invent a context. Incomprehensible messages awaken our imagination.
Similarly, messages about genetic risk need practical contexts that make the information meaningful and prevent nightmarish imaginations. The information needs to become part of a larger drama. Otherwise, we begin to fantasize: “Greatly increased risk of breast cancer.” – What do they mean, “greatly increased”? What do they mean, “breast cancer”? What do they mean, “risk”?
The difficulty of understanding and benefitting from genetic risk information is probably partly due to lack of context. The potential for generating risk information is growing rapidly. All this information is waiting for its dramas: contexts where people can ask concrete questions and get practical advice. Educational methods for explaining percentages cannot replace the loss of context. People who get genetic risk information need to know more about the disease they are at risk of developing. They may want to know if they should notify the employer of the risk. They may want to know if something can be done to reduce the risk. They may want to know what it is like to live with the disease, or with the risk of getting it. How is the family affected? Can you work having the disease? Should one worry or is it reasonable to hope that one will not get the disease? And so on.
In short, well-functioning genetic risk information has two dimensions. First, an individual dimension: “You have a greatly increased risk of…” Secondly, a general dimension: Practical instructions on a wide variety of issues that people need to know more about, and about which they otherwise begin to fantasize.
To speak the language of the theater: The individual dimension (the simple risk message) is the lines. The general dimension is the stage directions. Genetic risk information consists of both lines and stage directions.
When we discuss whether genetic risk information empowers people to influence their future health or just worries them, when we discuss the difficulty of understanding risk information, we should be clearly aware of these two dimensions of the information. Are we discussing the lines or the stage directions? Or are we discussing the lines together with the stage directions?
Which dimension of genetic risk information is most relevant to the individual? Perhaps the lines are merely a reason for moving on to the stage directions. The dramatic risk lines may speak mainly to the healthcare staff, while the individual above all needs the stage directions.
One could not work at a theater without distinguishing between lines and stage directions. Perhaps something similar applies to genetic risk information.