Running Head: RISK-RELEVANT INFORMATION

 

 

 

 

Does Risk-Relevant Information Influence Sexual Behavior?1

Catherine Norris

California State University Fullerton

May 21, 2001


Abstract

The present study was designed to determine the effects of a partner’s physical attractiveness, previous sexual history and previous drug on judgments of one’s willingness to engage in one act of unprotected sexual intercourse with that person. The participants included 140 individuals who completed the experiment via the World Wide Web. The participants rated 36 combinations of the independent variables.  Participants rated how willing they would be to engage in one act of unprotected sexual intercourse with that person. The results showed that people were unwilling to engage in intercourse if the person had a history of drug use, a large number of sexual partners, or was not attractive. Only when all three variables were favorable did the mean ratings exceed.

 

 


Does Risk-Relevant Information Influence Sexual Behavior?

Intravenous drug users (IVDUs) are at high risk for contracting HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Siegel, Carlson, Falck, Li, Forney, Rapp, Baumgartner, Myers, & Nelson (1991) examined IVDUs in a low seroprevalence area of the Midwest. The authors found that approximately half (49%) of the subjects reported sharing needles or syringes. Almost 40% of the IVDUs reported a history of at least one sexually transmitted disease. The subjects that tested HIV positive were more likely to have injected drugs on a daily basis, to have shared needles and syringes, to have multiple sex partners and to have a history of sexually transmitted disease.

Many young adults are relying on their believed ability to avoid sexual intercourse with infected partners as their main preventative mechanism against AIDS. Maticka-Tyndale (1991) found that young adults generally did not perceive themselves as susceptible to HIV infection, even when their own sexual activities had exposed them to a large degree of risk, and when they had demonstrated knowledge of these risks. Protection against HIV infection was almost exclusively through denial of the possibility of infection in chosen partners. The subjects assumed they would be able to identify if an individual was infected. Thus, the subjects felt they were not at risk of infection. The subjects stated that their primary use of condoms was for birth control and not for protection against HIV infection. The results suggested that once oral contraceptives are used, the frequency of condom use is depressed since the primary motivation for using condoms is birth control.

If condoms are being used primarily as contraceptives, not prophylactics, the question arises as to why? Many young adults believe that AIDS is a serious problem, but not their problem. Aronson, Fried, & Stone (1991) reported that fear does not always lead people towards rational behavior; instead it may trigger denial. Denial is caused by a fear of AIDS along with a prejudice against condoms. The purpose of their study was to induce feelings of hypocrisy in order to increase condom use. Hypocrisy was created by making subjects mindful of their past failure to use condoms and then having them persuade others about the importance of condoms for AIDS prevention. Arson et al. concluded that induction of hypocrisy decreased denial and led to greater self-reported intent to improve condom use. The authors theorized that making young adults aware of their own previous high-risk behaviors must be accompanied by an engaging activity such as public advocacy if they are to overcome denial and adopt safer sexual behaviors.

College students continue to engage in high levels of unsafe sexual behavior. Williams, Kimble, Covell, Weiss, Newton, & Fisher (1992) found that of those college students who had been sexually active, 75% had not always used condoms during intercourse and 44% had had two or more partners within the previous six months. The purpose of their study was to determine the underlying reasons for the students’ unsafe sexual behavior. The results suggested that instead of using condoms, students relied on implicit theories of personality to judge the riskiness of potential partners. The authors found that partners who students knew and liked were perceived as not being risky, regardless of that person's previous sexual behavior. Participants did not perceive themselves as being at risk of HIV infection. Most students perceive themselves to be socially distant from individuals with AIDS. Students almost unanimously reported that they did not like using condoms and believed that condoms interfere with the spontaneity of sex. The authors argued that college students should judge a potential partner’s riskiness on factors such as past sexual behavior, instead of implicit personality traits. Also, college students are able to drastically reduce their risk of infection by understanding that they are vulnerable to HIV infection and by engaging in safer-sex behaviors.

 Nevertheless, many individuals at high risk for HIV infection appear unwilling to alter their behavior to reduce their risk of exposure. Agocha, & Cooper (1999) suggested that one possible explanation for this unwillingness is that highly salient situational factors, such as a potential partner’s physical attractiveness may interfere with one’s ability to respond rationally to risk-relevant cues. The purpose of their study was to determine how a potential partner’s physical attractiveness and sexual history information would decrease perceived risk and intentions to practice safer sex behaviors. As they anticipated, an attractive target was perceived as less risky than an unattractive target and safer-sex intentions were undermined with a more attractive target. Participants were less likely to report that they would discuss risk-relevant topics with an attractive target. Sexual history was the strongest predictor of perceived risk but it did not directly influence the decision if a condom would be used or to discuss risk-relevant topics. The results suggested that risk perceptions are driven, partially, by situational factors such as physical attractiveness.

The purpose of the present study was to determine how the effects of a partner’s physical attractiveness, previous sexual history and previous drug use would influence one’s willingness to engage in one act of unprotected sexual intercourse with that person. The independent variables were physical attractiveness, number of previous sexual partners, and previous intravenous drug use. The dependent variable was measured by rating on a five point scale from 1 = Not Willing to 5 = Very Very Willing, how likely one would be to engage in one act of unprotected sexual intercourse with that person. 

It was predicted, based on finding by Agocha & Cooper (1999) that an attractive target would be perceived as less risky than an unattractive one. Specifically, it was predicted that an individual would be more willing to engage in one act of unprotected intercourse with a very attractive or attractive versus an unattractive target. Also, it was predicted, based on findings by Siegel et al.  (1991), that intravenous drug users would be at higher risk for HIV infection. Specifically, it was predicted that previous intravenous drug use would decrease intentions to engage in one act of unprotected sexual intercourse regardless of the target’s physical attractiveness. Finally, it was predicted, based on finding by Agocha. & Cooper (1999), that even though sexual history is the strongest predictor of perceived risk, it would be undermined with an attractive target. Specifically, it was predicted that, regardless of previous number of sexual partners, one would be more likely to engage in sexual intercourse with an attractive target versus an unattractive target.

In order to examine which of the three factors is most strongly weighted in judgments, the relative weight averaging model will be used. The formula for the model is:

            W0*S0 + Wattractiveness*Sattractiveness + Wdrug *Sdrug  + Wpartners*Spartners

  R =                                                                                                                               

W0 + Wattractiveness + Wdrug  + Wpartners

 

 
 

 

 


Where Wattractiveness, Wdrug , and Wpartners are the relative weights of attractiveness, drug use and partners, and the Sattractiveness, Sdrug  and Spartners are the scale values of the levels of attractiveness, drug use and partners. When information is unknown, its weight is zero. This model implies that there are no two or three way interactions between factors, when all the information is presented. The model also implies that the effect of one factor will be less when additional factors are presented and when in the presence of more important factors. The fit of this model will used to estimate the relative importance of attractiveness, drug use and previous number of sexual partners when people are deciding whether to engage in a act of unprotected sexual intercourse.

 

Method

Instructions

The participants were asked to determine how a person's physical attractiveness, number of previous sexual partners and prior drug use would influence their willingness to engage in one act of unprotected sexual intercourse with that person. The participants were asked to read each trial carefully and rate on a scale from (1) Not Willing to (5) Very Willing how willing they would be to engage in one act of sexual intercourse. Participants completed the experiment via the World Wide Web.

Stimuli

The experiment consisted of thirty-six trials. Each trial was presented in the format of the following example:

Attractiveness: Attractive

Previous Drug Use: No

Number of Partners: 3.

This display denoted a case in which the individual is attractive, has had no history of previous drug use and has had 3 previous sexual partners.

Design

The 36 combinations were constructed from a 3 x 3x 4, Attractiveness by Previous Drug Use by Number of Partners, factorial design, in which the 3 levels of Attractiveness were very attractive, attractive or not attractive; the 3 levels of Previous Drug use were yes, no or unknown; the 4 levels of Number of Partners were 0, 3, 20 or unknown.

Attractiveness

Attractiveness has three levels: Not Attractive, Attractive and Very Attractive. A person who is considered "Not Attractive" was described as normal or "average" in appearance, but not ugly or repulsive. The person is just not considered particularly attractive. "Attractive" refers to a person that is found appealing based on their looks, but not as attractive as the person that is "Very Attractive", who is very very appealing.

Number of partners

The person's previous number of sexual partners refers to information that was received from the person. The person says that he or she has had 0, 3 or 20 different sexual partners. “Unknown” means that no information about previous number of sexual partners was given.

Previous drug use

The person's previous drug use refers to what the person has said. "No" means that the person says that he or she has never used intravenous (needle) drugs, “Yes" means that the person says that he or she has injected drugs with a needle. “Unknown” means that information about previous drug use not given.

Dependent measure

The participant was asked to rate each case on how willing they would be to engage in one act of sexual intercourse with that person. They were asked to rate on a five point scale from (1) Not Willing to (5) Very Very Willing.

Procedure

The participants were brought into the computer lab and given an address to complete the online experiment. The address given was http://psych.fullerton.edu/mbirnbaum/ psych466/cn/SexualBehav.htm. The participants were free to work at a self-directed pace.

Participants

The participants included 140 individuals. Most were undergraduate students from California State University, Fullerton. Other participants included individuals from varying parts of the world who completed the experiment via the World Wide Web. The participants ranged in age from 18 to 39 years of age.

Results

Ratings of Willingness to Engage in Intercourse

Attractiveness of an individual had a positive effect on the willingness to engage in intercourse with that person. A person was more likely to engage in one act of unprotected intercourse with a very attractive individual than an attractive individual that a not attractive individual. There was a significant main effect of attractiveness, F (2, 276) = 150.7, p< .001. As the individuals previous number of sexual partners increased the willingness to engage in intercourse decreased. There was a significant main effect of previous number of sexual partners, F = (2, 276) = 53.2, p< .001. Also, pervious drug use had a negative effect on the willingness to engage in intercourse with that person. A person was more likely to engage in intercourse with a person with who had not previously injected intravenous drugs that a person who had regardless of attractiveness. There was a significant main effect of drug use, F (1, 138) = 125.9, p< .001. Figure 1a and 1b illustrate that people were unwilling to engage in intercourse if the person had a history of drug use, a large number of sexual partners, or was not attractive. Only when all three variables were favorable did the mean ratings exceed.

When drug use is removed, as shown in Figure 2, attractive and very attractive individuals with 0 or 3 previous partners receive the highest mean ratings for willingness to engage in intercourse. Not attractive individuals, regardless of previous number of partners, receive low ratings. The Attractiveness by Drug Use interaction is significant, F = (4, 552) = 47.4, P<.001.

When previous number of partners is removed, as shown in Figure 3, previous drug use significantly decreases one’s willing to engage in intercourse, regardless of physical attractiveness, F = (2, 226) = 54.4, P<.001.

Previous drug use significantly decreases one’s willingness to engage in one act of unprotected intercourse, regardless of previous number of partners, as shown in Figure 4, F = (2, 276) = 52.5, P<.001.

Discussion

The results supported the hypothesis that an individual would be more willing to engage in one act of unprotected intercourse with a very attractive or attractive versus an unattractive target. The present results are consistent with Agocha & Cooper (1999) who found that an attractive target would be perceived as less risky than an unattractive one.

The results supported the hypothesis that previous drug use would decrease intentions to engage in one act of unprotected sexual intercourse, regardless of physical attractiveness. The findings are consistent with Siegel et al. (1991) who found that intravenous drug users are at higher risk for HIV infection.

The results did not support the hypothesis that regardless of previous number of sexual partners, one would be more likely to engage in intercourse with an attractive target versus an unattractive target. The present results conflict with Agocha. & Cooper (1999), that even though sexual history is the strongest predictor of perceived risk, it would be undermined with an attractive target.

The results suggest that people were unwilling to engage in intercourse if the person had a history of drug use, a large number of sexual partners, or was not attractive. The implications of the results suggest that individuals rely on situational factors such as physical attractiveness when deciding to engage in unprotected intercourse.  The results indicate that sexual history and drug use information also play a significant role in determining whether to engage in intercourse or not. This contradicts with previous research that suggests that highly salient situational factors, such as physical attractiveness, play the largest role in determining the perceived risk of a person. The present results suggest that only when all factors are favorable was one willing to engage in an act of unprotected intercourse.  Implicating that a person must be physically attractive, have had a low number of previous sexual partners and no prior history of drug use for one to be willing to engage in an act of unprotected intercourse with that person. If an individual is relying on the above criteria they are still putting oneself at risk for HIV infection. The only way to determine an individual is HIV negative is through a blood test to detect antibodies. People need to be made aware that they are at risk of infection and should engage in unprotected intercourse only if their partner has tested negative for HIV. Otherwise, condoms should always be used to decrease the risk of HIV infection.

Further research could examine how physical attractiveness affects the willingness to discuss sexual history and previous drug use with an individual. The effect of oral contraceptives on condom use may also be particularly interesting for further research.

 

 

 


References

Agocha, V. B. & Cooper, M. L. (1999). Risk perceptions and safer-sex intentions: Does a partner’s physical attractiveness undermine the use of risk-relevant information? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 25, 746-759.

Aronson, E., Fried, C. B., & Stone, J. (1991). Overcoming denial and increasing the intention to use condoms through the induction of hypocrisy. American Journal of Public Health, 81, 1636-1638.

Maticka-Tyndale, E. (1991). Sexual scripts and AIDS prevention: Variations in adherence to safer-sex guidelines by heterosexual adolescents. Journal of Sex Research, 28, 45-66.

Siegel, H. A, Carlson, R. G., Falck, R., Li, L., Forney, M. A., Rapp, R. C., Baumgartner, K., Myers, W. & Nelson, M. (1991). HIV infection and risk behaviors among intravenous drug users in low seroprevalence areas in the Midwest. American Journal of Public Health, 81, 1642-1644.

Williams, S. S., Kimble, D. L., Covell, N. H., Weiss, L. H., Newton, K. J., Fisher, J. D., & Fisher, W. A. (1992). College students use implicit personality theory instead of safer sex. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 22, 921-933.


Footnotes

1.      I would like to thank Dr. Michael Birnbaum at California State University, Fullerton for assistance with the design of this experiment and for aid with the write up of this paper. Also, for helping with the testing of subjects.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Figure Captions

Figure 1a.  No Previous Drug Use x Attractiveness x Number of Partners Interaction.

This figure depicts the mean ratings of willingness to engage in intercourse on the vertical axis by the target’s physical attractiveness on the horizontal axis. There is a separate curve for previous number of sexual partners. This figure denotes no previous drug use.

Figure 1b. Previous Drug Use x Attractiveness x Number of Partners Interaction.

This figure is the same as Figure 1a. except is denotes previous drug use.

Figure 2. Attractiveness x Number of Partners Interaction.

This figure depicts the mean ratings of willingness to engage in intercourse on the vertical axis by the target’s physical attractiveness on the horizontal axis. There is a separate curve for previous number of partners.

Figure 3. Attractiveness x Drug Use Interaction

This figure depicts the mean ratings of willingness to engage in intercourse on the vertical axis by the target’s physical attractiveness on the horizontal axis. There is a separate curve for drug use.

Figure 4. Drug Use x Number of Partners Interaction

This figure depicts the mean ratings of willingness to engage in intercourse on the vertical axis by the target’s previous number of sexual partners on the horizontal axis. There is a separate cure for drug use.