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UC Berkeley professor's research says individual need for positive self image impedes AIDS efforts
12 July 2001

By Ute Frey

Berkeley - Individuals' instinctive need to feel good about themselves adversely affects their ability to respond to many AIDS prevention campaigns and their willingness to change their behavior or seek treatment, according to new research.

The work conducted by Priya Raghubir, marketing professor at the University of California, Berkeley's Haas School of Business, and Geeta Menon, associate professor of marketing at New York University, provides critical insight into how public health officials and social marketers can design more effective AIDS prevention campaigns.

"As the epidemic is experiencing a rebound, efforts to increase awareness of AIDS and risky behaviors now are as important as ever," said Raghubir, noting the United States is reporting an average of 40,000 new cases of HIV infection each year. "It is critical that public health officials are able to craft surveys and educational campaigns that overcome bias and denial, help audiences see themselves as at risk, and prompt a positive response."

The researchers found that the "self positivity" bias, a phenomenon that creates a need in individuals to feel good about themselves, deters target audiences of AIDS awareness campaigns from identifying with the material in the ads and therefore prevents them from processing the information effectively.

Specifically, this bias causes individuals to perceive that they are less likely than are others to contract the virus or the disease. Furthermore, the less similar the person or situation depicted in the ad is to the individuals reading it, the lower the individuals perceive their risk of contracting the virus.

Prevention campaigns are designed based on the results of surveys distributed to identify public awareness and levels of risky behavior. Raghubir and Menon discovered that the same biases that plague prevention campaigns can be found in the surveys on which the ads are based.

For example, the need to conform to social norms leads survey subjects to overstate their socially desirable behaviors (e.g., use of condoms) and to underreport their socially undesirable behaviors (e.g., sharing needles).

Surveys generally remind individuals of unsafe behaviors they may have practiced. However, subjects may find it difficult to remember whether or how often they have engaged in these behaviors - either because the survey mentioned several such behaviors or because the individuals have not engaged in such behaviors often or recently. Difficulty in accessing this information leads to skewed survey responses.

Based on these findings, the authors developed guidelines to increase the effectiveness of AIDS prevention campaigns. They include:

* In ads and surveys, show an example of a behavior that can lead to AIDS, instead of one that prevents it.

* Use only one kind of behavior as an example, as opposed to several.

* Counter-bias the message by introducing the socially undesirable behavior as "normal," thereby encouraging the readers to be honest with themselves.

* Create an element of empathy before actually communicating the message.

* Make sure that the audience does not filter the message through an "it does not relate to me" strategy, but rather will identify with the subject and respond honestly.

* Prime the message along the lines that the HIV virus can be transmitted through unprotected sex and ask subjects if they ever had unprotected sex or know someone who has.

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