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Ellen Peters - The Ohio State University. Columbus, OH, US

Ellen Peters

Professor of Psychology, Director of the Decision Sciences Collaborative & Professor of Medicine | Department of Internal Medicine | The Ohio State University


Decision psychology expert, with a penchant for the study of numeracy, risk and uncertainty






Health Literacy and Numeracy: A Workshop, Panel 1 -- Ellen Peters, Ph.D. When Do We Tend to Make the Best Decisions? How can medical information best be presented?



Dr. Peters is Professor of Psychology, Director of the Decision Sciences Collaborative, Professor of Medicine in the Department of Internal Medicine (by courtesy) and Professor of Marketing & Logistics in the Fisher College of Business (by courtesy.) She conducts basic and applied research in judgment and decision making. She has worked extensively with the U.S. National Cancer Institute and FDA to advance the science of human decision making as it applies to health and health policy. She is former President of the Society for Judgment and Decision Making, former Chair of FDA’s Risk Communication Advisory Committee, and is a current member of the National Academies committee on the Science of Science Communication. She is a Fellow of the American Psychological Association, the Association for Psychological Science and the Society of Experimental Psychology. She was the first American to receive the Jane Beattie Scientific Recognition Award, and she has been awarded an NIH Merit Award. Her research has been funded extensively by the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health.

In her research, Dr. Peters focuses on understanding the basic building blocks of human judgment and decision making. She is particularly interested in how affective, intuitive, and deliberative processes help people to make decisions in an increasingly complex world. She studies decision making as an interaction of characteristics of the decision situation and characteristics of the individual. She has three major strands of basic research. First, she studies how numbers are processed in judgment and decision making. In recent publications, Dr. Peters and colleagues have focused on how numbers critical to decisions are processed by individuals who differ in number ability (also called numeracy). A second central strand of research concerns how affect and emotion influence information processing and decisions. Affect appears to have multiple functions in judgment and decision processes (as information, as a common currency, as a spotlight on information, and as a direct motivator of behaviors). Third, she is interested in how information processing and decision making change in complex ways across the adult life span. In applied research, she is also generally interested in issues of risk perception and risk communication in health, financial, and environmental contexts, including how to present information to facilitate its comprehension and use.

Industry Expertise (3)



Public Policy

Areas of Expertise (6)

Medical Decision-Making

Risk Perceptions


Human Decision-Making

Affect and Information Processing


Education (4)

University of Oregon: Ph.D., Psychology 1998

University of Oregon: M.S., Psychology 1994

University of Pennsylvania: B.S., Marketing, The Wharton School of Business 1989

University of Pennsylvania: B.S.E., Systems Engineering 1989

Media Appearances (6)

The chemicals in burnt toast and crispy fries won't kill you, but the calories might

Popular Science  


And in order for folks to make an informed choice, scientists and government agencies and journalists have to communicate the risks clearly. The first step is to include numbers. “People overestimate that they're going to benefit from a drug if you don't give them the numeric chances of benefit,” says Ellen Peters, Director of the Behavioral Decision Making Initiative at The Ohio State University. She says that the “biggest difference [in comprehension] is providing the number or not.” In the case of burnt potatoes, there were no numbers to give, but the fact that a risk is communicated at all makes a difference. “There is not a neutral way to present information,” Peters says. “Whatever you choose you're going to make people view it as more or less risky.”...

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Why climate change continues to be a tough sell



“We’re ideally objective when we think and decide, but that isn’t what we actually do,” Ohio State University decision sciences expert Ellen Peters told NPR’s Science Friday. In matters as potentially disruptive as the course of the climate, “We tend to seek out, interpret and weigh information according to what we wanted to believe ahead of time,” said Peters. That would apply, of course, to those on both sides of the argument.

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Smokers are more likely to quit if they see disgusting images of what smoking does

New York Daily News  


"People exposed to graphic warnings, other than just the text, remember more about the health effects," said Ellen Peters a professor of psychology at Ohio State University and the study’s co-author. "They remember more from the labels and had more negative emotional reactions to smoking."...

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Why we don’t wear seat belts in cabs (even though we know better)

Yahoo Health  


“The deliberative mode is based more on numbers,” Ellen Peters, PhD, a psychology professor and director of the Decision Sciences Collaborative at The Ohio State University, tells Yahoo Health. The problem: Numbers don’t always carry much meaning, particularly to people who aren’t naturally mathematically inclined. And that’s when the first mode — decision-making based on experiences — takes over...

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Do facts matter anymore in public policy? (op-ed)



People "were more likely to correctly identify the result most supported by the data when doing so affirmed the position one would expect them to be politically predisposed to accept … than when the correct interpretation of the data threatened or disappointed their predispositions," researchers Dan Kahan of Yale University, Ellen Peters of Ohio State University, Erica Cantrell Dawson of Cornell University, and Paul Slovic of the University of Oregon wrote in a paper submitted to the Social Science Research Network...

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Are you listening when we do the numbers?

NPR  radio


radio interview

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Recent Research (5)

Decision-making suffers when cancer patients avoid math

The Ohio State University


“The ability to understand numbers is associated with all kinds of positive health outcomes, including for cancer patients,” said Ellen Peters, professor of psychology at The Ohio State University. “The problem is that too many people aren’t good with numbers or are afraid of math. But we’re starting to figure out the best ways to help these patients so they aren’t at a disadvantage when it comes to their treatment.”...

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How graphic photos on cigarette packs help smokers consider quitting

The Ohio State University


“The graphic images motivated smokers to think more deeply about their habit and the risks associated with smoking,” said Ellen Peters, co-author of the study and professor of psychology at The Ohio State University. The study, which was a joint project between Ohio State and the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, appears in the journal PLOS ONE...

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​It Doesn’t Add Up: People Who Say They Are Good at Math, But Aren’t

The Ohio State University


“Some people mis-categorize themselves. They really don’t know how good they are when faced with a traditional math test,” said Ellen Peters, co-author of the study and professor of psychology at The Ohio State University. The results are important because they suggest that being “good at math” isn’t a single concept, Peters said...

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Good Mood Helps Boost Brain Power in Older Adults

The Ohio State University


“There has been lots of research showing that younger adults are more creative and cognitively flexible when they are in a good mood. But because of the cognitive declines that come with aging, we weren’t sure that a good mood would be able to help older adults,” said Ellen Peters, co-author of the study and professor of psychology at Ohio State University. “So these results are good news. There are ways for older adults to overcome some of the cognitive declines that come with aging.”...

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Education More Important Than Knowledge In Stopping Spread Of HIV In Africa

The Ohio State University


These cognitive abilities are what people develop through formal education, said Ellen Peters, lead author of the study and associate professor of psychology at Ohio State University. “Knowledge about HIV and AIDS is important, but greater knowledge is not by itself leading people to take on healthier behaviors,” Peters said. “People really need the education that trains them how to think, to use their knowledge to plan for the future.” This is one of the first studies to show the importance of formal education in helping to prevent the spread of HIV, outside of research done in relatively well-educated Western countries, Peters said...

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