What leads some people to think they are HIV-positive before knowing their diagnosis? A systematic review of psychological and behavioural correlates of HIV-risk perception

AIDS Care. 2016 Aug;28(8):943-53. doi: 10.1080/09540121.2016.1139040. Epub 2016 Feb 6.


Current HIV-risk perception refers to the extent to which individuals think they might be HIV-positive. This belief, distinct from the perceived risk about being infected with HIV in the future, is likely to have a range of important consequences. These consequences may include both psychological effects (e.g., impacts on well-being) and behavioural effects (e.g., HIV testing uptake). Given these possible outcomes, and the suggested importance of risk perception in health behaviour models, understanding the behavioural and psychological antecedents of current HIV-risk perception is crucial. This systematic review investigates the relationship between behavioural and psychological factors and current HIV-risk perception (in individuals who are unaware of their actual HIV status). Eight studies were eligible for inclusion in the review (five quantitative and three qualitative studies). Drug risk behaviour and sexual risk behaviour (both self and partner) were often associated with current HIV-risk perception, although other studies failed to show a relationship between one's own sexual risk behaviour and risk perception. Psychological factors were only rarely assessed in relation to current HIV-risk perception. Where these variables were included, there was evidence that experiencing symptoms perceived to be consistent with HIV and prompts to test were associated with increased current HIV-risk perception. These findings are consistent with the Common-Sense Model (CSM) of illness representation and self-regulation. Methodological quality criteria were rarely met for the included studies. In addition, it was often difficult to ascertain whether potentially includable studies were eligible due to imprecise definitions of HIV-risk perception. Research and practice implications are discussed, with particular emphasis on the role of risk appraisals as a potential mediator of the relationship between HIV-risk behaviour, symptoms and current HIV-risk perception.

Keywords: HIV-risk perception; behavioural; psychological; risk appraisal; systematic review.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • HIV Infections / diagnosis
  • HIV Infections / psychology*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Perception
  • Risk
  • Risk-Taking
  • Sexual Behavior / psychology*
  • Sexual Partners