First impressions of HIV risk: it takes only milliseconds to scan a stranger

PLoS One. 2012;7(1):e30460. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0030460. Epub 2012 Jan 24.


Research indicates that many people do not use condoms consistently but instead rely on intuition to identify sexual partners high at risk for HIV infection. The present studies examined neural correlates for first impressions of HIV risk and determined the association of perceived HIV risk with other trait characteristics. Participants were presented with 120 self-portraits retrieved from a popular online photo-sharing community ( Factor analysis of various explicit ratings of trait characteristics yielded two orthogonal factors: (1) a 'valence-approach' factor encompassing perceived attractiveness, healthiness, valence, and approach tendencies, and (2) a 'safeness' factor, entailing judgments of HIV risk, trustworthiness, and responsibility. These findings suggest that HIV risk ratings systematically relate to cardinal features of a high-risk HIV stereotype. Furthermore, event-related brain potential recordings revealed neural correlates of first impressions about HIV risk. Target persons perceived as risky elicited a differential brain response in a time window from 220-340 ms and an increased late positive potential in a time window from 350-700 ms compared to those perceived as safe. These data suggest that impressions about HIV risk can be formed in a split second and despite a lack of information about the actual risk profile. Findings of neural correlates of risk impressions and their relationship to key features of the HIV risk stereotype are discussed in the context of the 'risk as feelings' theory.

Publication types

  • Clinical Trial
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Brain Mapping
  • Choice Behavior / physiology
  • Female
  • HIV Infections / diagnosis*
  • HIV Infections / etiology*
  • HIV Infections / prevention & control*
  • Health Knowledge, Attitudes, Practice
  • Humans
  • Intuition / physiology
  • Male
  • Perception / physiology*
  • Prejudice
  • Recognition, Psychology / physiology
  • Risk
  • Risk-Taking
  • Sexual Behavior / physiology
  • Sexual Behavior / psychology
  • Sexual Partners / psychology
  • Social Desirability
  • Time Factors
  • Young Adult