Neural correlates of perceived risk: the case of HIV

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Research indicates that many people do not use condoms consistently but rather rely on illusory control strategies for avoiding an infection with HIV. Preliminary evidence suggests that people form impressions of a partner’s HIV risk based on his or her physical appearance. To examine the neural correlates of such appearance-based HIV risk impressions, event-related potentials were recorded while participants viewed portraits of unacquainted persons. Participants’ explicit HIV risk ratings for each of the presented unacquainted persons were used to form categories of low and high HIV risk persons. Results showed that risky, compared to safe persons elicited distinct event-related potential (ERP) modulations. Viewing risky persons was associated with an increased positivity over right frontal regions between 180 and 240 ms. This suggests that impressions related to HIV risk occur rapidly, presumably reflecting automatic person evaluations eluding introspection. In a time window between 450 and 600 ms, risky persons elicited an increased late positive potential. Consistent with previous findings reporting augmented late positive potentials (LPP) amplitudes to affectively significant stimuli, the results support the assumption that risky faces draw more attention resources. These findings are in accordance with the ‘risk as feeling’ notion.

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