Friends of the Behavioral Economics Club, this week we present the paper “Exploring the use of nudges to improve HIV and Other Sexually Transmitted Infection Testing Among Men Who Have Sex With Men”, by Aung, E. T.; Fairley, C. K.; Chow, E. P. F.; Maddaford, K.; Wigan, R.; Read, D.; Taj, U.; Vlaev, I. and Ong, J. J. (2022), in which the authors ask the question of whether nudges, which belong to behavioral economics theory, could be useful when it comes to improving prevention of ITS. 

Several health organizations recommend that people who are sexually active and, above all, have multiple sexual partners be screened for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases

Regular screening for STDs plays an integral role in the control of pandemics of this type, because early detection of infections helps to reduce morbidity and onward transmission, as well as the negative effects of the disease for the person who contracts it. 

As a study population for the current paper, the authors chose gay and bisexual men (and, in general, men who have sex with men). 

The Australian Periodic Gay Survey reported an increase in HIV testing between 2016 and 2020, however, there was a decline in the number of tests in 2021.

The authors believe that the most effective way to increase early detection of HIV and other STD infections is to use behavioral economics strategies effectively. Why?

Well, because the decision to obtain an HIV test is identifiable with economic theories, as it involves making decisions taking into account benefits (early treatment of STDs) and costs (the time it takes to get tested, difficulties in accessing clinical services, test anxiety…). 

Thus, the authors put forward the idea of “nudges,” which, basically, is a discipline that is designed to influence behavior in a predictable way, increasing the benefit to the individual and the community at large

Nudges are attractive policy options because they can be very effective, maintain the individual autonomy of those being nudged, and can often be achieved at low cost. 

A very famous and effective form of nudging, if done correctly, is message development. These can be framed so that the same decision or choice can be presented using positive, negative, and/or other framing. Due to the principle of loss aversion, this can change the attractiveness of each of the options presented within the message. This, applied to STD transmission, is something that few studies have explored

This study was conducted with the help of the Melbourne Sexual Health Center, which is a mental health clinic in Victoria, Australia. This clinic uses a computer-assisted self-interview system that all clients register upon arrival at the clinic. They are also briefly asked about their sexual history in that self-interview.

In addition, they are asked if they would like to receive a reminder every three months advising them to be screened as a routine process, specifically, if they would like to receive the reminder by SMS. Between 80% and 90% of the men chose to receive a reminder. 

This entire process was repeated with 309 clinic users over 18 years old who agreed to participate and receive reminders.

These reminders could be formulated in different ways. First, in a neutral way (“your next checkup is due, call to schedule an appointment”), in a personalized way (“hello, ‘name’, your next checkup is due, please make an appointment”), following social norm (“your next checkup is due, most people get tested when they receive this message, please make an appointment”), positively (“you should have your next checkup, to stay healthy regular testing is recommended, please make an appointment”) or negatively (“you should have your next checkup, not testing regularly could harm your health, call for an appointment”). 

Participants had to choose which of all the forms they preferred for their reminder message. 

The study showed that they preferred neutral, personalized, positive messages over negative or social norm messages. The majority of participants also preferred the SMS message over an email. 

Most men in the study already received SMS reminders from before and in a neutral way, so it was not surprising that the most popular message was such a message. This may be because of the exposure effect, i.e., people like things they are familiar with. However, younger men preferred the positive message, so it would be appropriate to use it for people in the newer generations. 

The key to the nudges is to make it easy for people, which is ultimately what we should focus on. 

Authors recommend taking the results with caution, as the experiment was conducted in Australia, and may not be a globally representative population. 

If you want to know more about Behavioral Economics and how to apply it to human behavior, take a look to our Master of Science in Behavioral Economics, a 100% online program that you can take in Spanish or English, with special grants for readers of the Behavioral Economics Blog.

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