Health Promotion

Our lab is engaged in several social media and technology projects that use experiments, surveys, and social media data to study behaviors related to HIV and other infections (e.g., COVID-19 and flu), harm reduction associated with drug use, and lifestyle.

Our lab discovers and applies theoretical principles to curb disease and improve health.

Examples of our current projects are:

  1. Designing nationwide programs to reduce the HIV and Hepatitis C harm of the substance use epidemic in rural areas by bringing together communities and health agencies
  2. Identifying and testing methods to automatically disseminate of health messages to different types of counties in the United States
  3. Understanding how to change multiple behaviors

Selected Findings:

Fear works.

Despite the bad press of fear, highlighting risk or fear is generally better than doing so.

To attract a population to your intervention, don’t sell change.

To increase enrollment in HIV-prevention interventions, it’s better to tell people that the intervention will give them options, but that their behavior may not change. We applied this principle in health departments and found that empowering potential recipients to resist the intervention if they so wanted worked better than telling them that the intervention would make them change.

To attract a population to participate in interventions, go slowly.

It is better to get people to participate in easy interventions like reading a brochure first, and then move on to more to more intensive ones, like watching an entire video or enrolling in counseling. A foot-in-the-door approach is best.

Targeting is not as effective when people suspect that the targeting is prejudiced.

For stigmatizing health conditions, targeting messages around race can elicit negative emotions and decrease exposure. This is the case with HIV and Black populations in the US.

To retain a population in a health intervention, sell the secondary but important benefits rather than behavioral change.

Even though a “soft sell” works to attract people to enroll in a program, to retain them in an HIV-prevention intervention, you need a different approach. Rather than empowering, it is more beneficial to remind them of all the non-health benefits of participating. Will meeting a health counselor help them to improve their job prospects?

Moderation messages are better at anticipating people’s behaviors, and, therefore, are more successful.

Telling adolescents not to drink at all backfires but only after they drink. Messages are most successful when they anticipate the future behavior of an audience.

Twitter can be used to measure beliefs, attitudes, and intentions to protect from infection with a virus.

A hybrid, top-down/bottom-up approach to topical analysis of tweets over the course of the Zika epidemic showed that these measures correlate with beliefs, attitudes, and intentions. We can replace expensive survey methods with social media analyses, which work particularly well to measure attitudes and intentions.

Vaccination correlates negatively with tweets about vaccination fraud.

In locations where many tweets centered around vaccine fraud, big pharma, and children, people in those counties were less likely to get a flu shot. However, this association is absent when people had discussions about vaccines with family and friends. Talking with others can debunk misconceptions in the health domain.

Altruism leads to greater vaccination in less crowded areas.

People are more likely to vaccinate to protect others when they reside in or think of low-density environments (i.e., non-metropolitan regions with lower population density and a less crowded store) than when they reside in or think of high-density ones (i.e., metropolitan regions with higher population density and a more crowded store). The reason is that individuals in low-density environments believe that their behavior matters more than do their high-density counterparts.

Areas with greater religious attendance and more punitive religious norms have more punitive and less protective attitudes toward drug policy.

In Appalachia and the Midwest areas we have studied, if your religious leaders favor punitive policies, so do you.