Source Newsroom: Wake Forest University
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, American men and women carry some 110 million sexually transmitted diseases. The cost to treat: $16 billion each year. The most common infection, human papillomavirus is linked to cancer.
Despite widespread knowledge that the spread of STDs is preventable, many people continue to take risks. Why?
Using an online computer game that simulates the spread of an infectious disease among its players, Wake Forest University researchers learned more about what motivates people to protect themselves from infection.
The study, the first in the economics of disease control using virtual diseases, was conducted by economists Fred Chen, Allin Cottrell and Amanda Griffith, and computer scientist Yue-Ling Wong.
“When it comes to policies for disease control, one size does not fit all. Some people are very risk tolerant and some are super risk averse. Our research shows that to prevent an epidemic, there is a need to tailor a menu of options for different kinds of people,” said Chen, who studies economic epidemiology.
STDs disproportionately affect young people. That the research was conducted through an online game may offer greater insight into the behavior of teens and young adults.
The research showed that to reduce disease prevalence, policies that reduce the cost of self-protection can be helpful. It also showed that as the number of players infected increased, so, too, did the number of players who chose to protect themselves — indicating that exact numbers matter. That 19.7 million infections are diagnosed annually may be important information to share in motivating people to self-protect.
“At the start of each day, participants could see how many players in the game were infected. As the number of sick players increased, more healthy players chose to take the preventative measure,” Chen said.
Researchers also found that players who got infected at a higher rate were more likely to take precautionary action in the future and that people’s willingness to engage in safe behavior increases or decreases over time.
The team’s paper, “Behavioral Responses to Epidemics in an Online Experiment: Using Virtual Diseases to Study Human Behavior” was published in PloS ONE, an international, peer-reviewed, open-access, online publication.
Chen and Griffith are available to discuss the results of their research.