Research Article: Visual cues that predict intuitive risk perception in the case of HIV

Date Published: February 20, 2019

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Ralf Schmälzle, Freda-Marie Hartung, Alexander Barth, Martin A. Imhof, Alex Kenter, Britta Renner, Harald T. Schupp, Natalie J. Shook.


Field studies indicate that people may form impressions about potential partners’ HIV risk, yet lack insight into what underlies such intuitions. The present study examined which cues may give rise to the perception of riskiness. Towards this end, portrait pictures of persons that are representative of the kinds of images found on social media were evaluated by independent raters on two sets of data: First, sixty visible cues deemed relevant to person perception, and second, perceived HIV risk and trustworthiness, health, and attractiveness. Here, we report correlations between cues and perceived HIV risk, exposing cue-criterion associations that may be used to infer intuitively HIV risk. Second, we trained a multiple cue-based model to forecast perceived HIV risk through cross-validated predictive modelling. Trained models accurately predicted how ‘risky’ a person was perceived (r = 0.75) in a novel sample of portraits. Findings are discussed with respect to HIV risk stereotypes and implications regarding how to foster effective protective behaviors.

Partial Text

Merely looking at another person, people spontaneously form impressions about fundamental personality characteristics such as trustworthiness, competence, and attractiveness [1–4]. Such snap judgments have been shown to influence real-world decisions in many contexts, including political voting, sentencing, leadership, or online dating [5–9]. Less known, however, snap judgments seem also to play a role in the context of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) [10,11] where people draw inferences about potential partners and make decisions about whether to use effective protection.

Sexually transmitted infections are a great burden at the individual and societal level, with more than 1 million of STIs being acquired per day [59,60]. Major health organizations consistently report and warn against a knowledge-behavior gap in HIV prevention. Specifically, while knowledge about effective HIV prevention is high, levels of protective behavior are low [60]. The reliance on ineffective rather than effective strategies to prevent infection may help to explain the knowledge-behavior gap [17]. Specifically, basing HIV perception on the appearance or trustworthiness of the partner may give people the feeling of risk control while not providing effective control. In order to further understand appearance-based HIV risk perception, we reveal in the present research how visible cues in photographs of persons—similar to the one’s used in online dating—relate to impressions of HIV risk, how impressions of HIV risk can be predicted from the cues alone with relatively high accuracy, and how impressions of HIV risk relate to broader impressions of trust, health, and attractiveness.




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