Welcome to The AIDS Pandemic, a podcast hosted by Dr. David Wessner from the Department of Biology at Davidson College. I'm Ali Cundari.
Beyond the obvious physical symptoms associated with AIDS, there are many psychological and social implications surrounding this debilitating disease that we don’t often consider. Mass media efforts and expensive awareness campaigns have done a good job at spreading information to the general public, however, these programs have not been highly successful in reducing risky sexual behavior. Talking about sexuality and proper protection is a topic very uncomfortable to many people, even in today’s world, and this is the reason why many people fail to practice safe sex despite the vast knowledge about how this disease is transmitted. Additionally, a perplexing phenomenon exists among individuals outwardly preaching safe sex, but in reality, not using protection in their own sex lives. This type of insensible behavior is particularly prevalent among sexually active college students, who are aware of the risks and severity of AIDS, but proportionately, very few of them actually use condoms. Recently, several social psychologists have examined this hypocrisy by researching the effects of cognitive dissonance theory on safer sex practices.
Cognitive dissonance theory has been an integral component of social psychology for nearly 50 years, and according to this theory, dissonance arises when a person possesses two contradictory beliefs, or when a person’s attitude conflicts with an action that they chose to perform. This clash between attitude and behavior results in feelings of discomfort, and subsequently the conflicted individual strives to change either their beliefs or behavior to reduce this tension. Hypocrisy is considered a special type of cognitive dissonance, produced when a person decides to promote a behavior that in actuality, they do not practice. Several experiments have been conducted in an attempt to apply this theory to AIDS prevention.
Elliot Aronson was the major contributor to this field of research, and his original study (1991) placed young college students in the role of a HIV prevention educator, who is asked to advocate condom-use to others, but hypocritically does not use condoms in their own sex life. Half the students were asked to compile a list of their past failures to use condoms, when they had deemed it to be too awkward or impossible to do so. Each subject was then asked to compose a speech about the dangers of AIDS and the importance of using condoms for every sexual encounter. The students were quite willing to take on this role, believing it was a good idea to encourage sexually active people to use protection. Then, some of the students recited their speech in front of a video camera, after being informed that this tape would be played in a high-school sex-education class. This produced a high level of dissonance in the subjects. They were now preaching condom-use to others, but hypocritically had failed to practice this at earlier points in their lives. In order to remove this dissonance, the subjects would have to change their attitude to bring it in line with the position they were advocating. Essentially, they’d have to start practicing what they preached. Sure enough, Aronson’s results supported this hypothesis, and after the conclusion of the experiment, the students were far more likely to purchase condoms, which were available on a display table outside the experimental room. Several months later, Aronson followed up with these same students, and they reported that they were regularly using condoms and practicing safer sex.
Many further studies have been conducted, all producing results quite similar to Aronson’s findings. The results of these experiments could have a profound impact on the future of AIDS education and risk reduction efforts, forcing people out of a state of denial and into safer sex practices. Although almost everybody today would agree that AIDS is a huge danger and using condoms is important, the reality is very few of these people actually use condoms themselves. Aronson suggests that the solution to this problem is relatively simple. Society attempts to insulate themselves from a state of dissonance through denial, so in order to cut through this denial, we must directly confront people with their own hypocrisy. Whether it’s through personal and direct surveys or questionnaires, we need to make people realize their past failures and strive to regularly practice safer sex. People need to realize that AIDS is not just a problem for other people, but they themselves are at risk as well. Overall, cognitive dissonance seems to have a strong impact on human behavior, and we can hope to use such theories to encourage safer sex and address the growing social problem that is AIDS.
Thanks for listening. Until next time, this is Ali Cundari.