Natalie Smoak

Natalie Smoak

Record-Breaking Grant
Virtual Reality May Unlock Keys to Fighting Spread of HIV, Other Sexually Transmitted Diseases

April 8, 2008

BLOOMINGTON, Ill. – Virtual reality may be able to transform people into a world of fantasy, but an Illinois Wesleyan University faculty member is hoping it will lead to real-world answers to help fight the spread of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).

Assistant Professor of Psychology Natalie Smoak is co-recipient of a $1.2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, the largest grant in the history of the University, that will use virtual reality to study how people make health decisions that could lead to sexually transmitted diseases (STD), including the transmission of HIV, the virus which causes AIDS.

Recent studies from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimate one in four teenagers in the United States carries an STD. Smoak believes the statistics reflect an attitude of invincibility that can harm students. “Students don’t think they need to use condoms. They think they can tell by looking at someone if they have a sexually transmitted disease, which we know is rarely the case,” said Smoak. The CDC, which promotes condom use as a highly effective STD prevention method, also estimates 40,000 people become infected each year with HIV.

Smoak and Kerry Marsh, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Connecticut, will enlist the help of virtual reality to place people in social situations and study their reactions, seeing whether they make safer sex-related decisions. “Studying people’s sexual choices is not like studying fitness, where you can walk down to the local gym and observe behavior,” said Smoak of choosing virtual reality for the five-year program of research. “You can’t really follow people around at parties to observe their choices.”

One of the goals of the study is to see if risky sexual decisions are based upon environmental cues or personality. “Do young people happen to be in environments that facilitate risky decisions or is it a matter of individuals with certain personalities looking for less safe environments?” said Smoak. “This study will help us know whether it is better to intervene on an environmental or a personal level to promote safer choices.”

The grant will fund the purchase of two sets of virtual reality equipment and software, which Smoak will use to run scenarios for students, while Marsh will work with community members in Hartford, Connecticut. “Students will be placed at parties or in other situations where there is a potential for interaction,” said Smoak, who noted in virtual reality, the environment can be easily changed. “We can make the music louder, the lights lower, and even change the appearance of the people with whom they interact,” she said. “We can create a scenario where participants meet someone who is leaving the country in two days to study abroad, or just visiting that weekend. This manipulation creates a sense of urgency for participants, which may lead them to more impulsive, risky decisions and behaviors. In other words, in a case of ‘this may be my only chance,’ are young people more likely to gamble with their health and choose unsafe sex?”

Smoak and Marsh believe the virtual study will be less subject to bias than more conventional paper and pen surveys traditionally given to students. “People tend to tell you what you want to hear in a survey,” said Smoak. “They offer more morally or politically correct answers.” The goal, said Smoak, will be to find out whether college students, who represent a generation weaned on the Internet and video games, will give more truthful answers in virtual worlds, and based upon that data, what answers can be gleaned to prevent the spread of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.

Rachel Hatch (309) 556-3960