It only takes once: influence of sexual risk status, social comparison, and a Public Service Announcement on absent-exempt cognitions

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Stock, Michelle
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Frederick Gibbons
Meg Gerrard
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The Department of Psychology may prepare students with a liberal study, or for work in academia or professional education for law or health-services. Graduates will be able to apply the scientific method to human behavior and mental processes, as well as have ample knowledge of psychological theory and method.
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The current study is an extension of an ongoing program of research, based on the Prototype/Willingness Model (Gibbons, Gerrard, & Lane, 2003), which suggests that peer-based prevention messages may reinforce absent-exempt thinking, rather than reduce it (Stock et al., 2007). Absent-exempt thinking is the belief that if one has not experienced negative health consequences, in spite of having engaged in risky behavior, then one is unlikely to do so in the future (Weinstein, 1984, 1987). The present study provided an experimental demonstration of how social comparison prompted by a health message influences health cognitions (endorsement of absent-exempt thinking, willingness to engage in risky sex, prevalence estimates of risky sex on campus, favorability of risky sex prototypes, and perceptions of vulnerability to STDs). College students (N = 222) at either high or low risk of contracting STDs were randomly assigned to: (a) listen to a social comparison target who was a STD-positive student, despite engaging in low-risk sexual behavior (i.e., sex with one partner only a few times without a condom); (b) to hear a Public Service Announcement (PSA) that emphasized "it only takes one time" or (c) to hear no information about STDs. Participants then completed a questionnaire that assessed their risk-promoting cognitions and were then given the opportunity to read information on an STD.;It was predicted that high-risk participants in the social comparison group would report the highest levels of risk cognitions, whereas high-risk participants in the control condition would report lower levels of the risk promoting cognitions. High-risk participants in the PSA group would report moderate levels of these cognitions. The opposite pattern was predicted for low-risk participants: they would report the lowest levels of risk cognitions when they compared with the social comparison target and highest levels in the control condition. Because high comparers are more affected by comparison information it was hypothesized that the predicted interaction between information mode and participant sexual risk level would be stronger among those who engage in social comparison more often. It was also predicted that participant risk level and information mode would interact to produce differences in exposure time to the written information on STDs. Evidence of more heuristic-based processing that was expected for the health-risk cognition measures, but was not expected to be evident on intentions to get tested for STDs.;Initial analyses indicated that the overall pattern was such that the high-risk participants in the comparison condition tended to report the highest levels on all risk-promoting cognitions, whereas the low-risk participants in this condition reported the lowest levels. Additionally, the comparison group was significantly different from the PSA and control conditions, which were similar to each other. Due to these findings, the control and PSA conditions were collapsed together to form a non-comparison information condition.;As predicted, low-risk participants who heard from the low-risk, but infected, comparison target reported the lowest levels of absent-exempt endorsement, willingness, estimated prevalence, and the highest levels of perceived vulnerability. The high-risk participants in the comparison target condition reported the highest levels of absent-exempt endorsement, willingness, estimated prevalence, and the lowest levels of perceived vulnerability. These high-risk participants also spent the least amount of time reading information on genital herpes. Additionally, the impact of comparison information on the risk-promoting cognitions among low- and high-risk participants was greater for those who frequently engage in social comparison. Furthermore, although the high-risk participants in the comparison group reported the highest levels of heuristic-based responding, they also reported the greatest increase, from baseline to post-manipulation, in intentions to get tested for an STD, providing further support for the dual-processing nature of adolescent decision-making. This study highlighted the importance of social comparison in both the development of absent-exempt thinking and in reactions to health messages, especially those that are peer-based. This study also demonstrated the need to consider the risk status of both the audience and potential comparison targets employed in preventive health messages, and suggests that high social comparers and those who are at a greater risk may be more affected by comparison targets than are others.

Mon Jan 01 00:00:00 UTC 2007