A study published in the November issue of AIDS Education and Prevention
examines patterns in college students knowledge and attitudes over time about AIDS and people with AIDS.
Participants were students enrolled in Introductory Psychology at a
mid-sized southeastern university over a 14-year period between 1986 and
Participants anonymously completed an AIDS Attitude Scale (AAS)
consisting of "tolerant" and "intolerant" items such as: "I would like
to feel at ease around people with AIDS" or "I would not allow my
children to play with the children of people with AIDS." Students were
asked to rate their degree of agreement from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5
Additional questions were used to rate the participants knowledge about
HIV, perceived susceptibility to HIV, concerns about infection through
casual contact, and opinions about the effectiveness of condoms to
prevent the spread of HIV. Researchers chose these variables because
they reflect components of decision-making models used to conceptualize
Researchers also collected demographic data, including participants
age, gender, race/ethnicity, year in school, and sexual orientation.
Data was only analyzed from students who identified exclusively as
- Over the course of 15 years, there were 1,571 participants; 571 were
male and 1,000 were female.
- 89% of the participants were freshmen or sophmores.
- The average age of participants was 19.
- 90% of participants were Caucasian, 6% were African American, and 4%
were another race/ethnicity.
- Females typically scored higher on the AIDS Attitude Scale (AAS),
indicating more tolerant attitudes toward people with AIDS.
- Tolerance toward people with AIDS and HIV infection generally
increased over time.
- Higher comfort ratings for being close to people with HIV/AIDS
correlated with higher tolerance scores on the AAS.
- Since 1991, the comfort rating for being close to a classmate or
roommate with HIV or AIDS generally increased. Ratings indicate,
however, that students feel less comfortable being close to a roommate
than to a classmate.
- There was a significant increase in the percentage of students who
reported personally knowing someone with HIV infection.
- Perceived susceptibility to HIV appears to have decreased over
- Students reported more vulnerability to HIV immediately after Magic
Johnsons announcement that he was HIV-positive and again in the fall of
- Females were consistently less fearful of infection through casual
contact than males.
- Perceptions regarding the effectiveness of condoms for preventing the
spread of HIV infection have been mixed over time.
- Condoms were rated more effective in 1990 and 1991 than they were
either in 1987, 1988, or 2000.
- Males reported more confidence in the effectiveness of condoms in
reducing the spread of HIV than females.
The data suggest that as AIDS has become more prevalent in the United
States, perceived knowledge about it has increased and college students
attitudes about it and people with HIV/AIDS have become more tolerant.
The authors state that one explanation for this finding is that when
individuals feel more confident about their HIV knowledge they are less
likely to fear infection through casual contact and are more tolerant of
people with HIV/AIDS.
The authors suggest that the decreasing concerns of HIV infection from
casual contact may relate to increases in personal contact with an
HIV-positive individual and societal events such as Magic Johnsons
announcement that he was HIV-positive.
Interestingly, the data suggest little relation between students perceived
susceptibility to HIV/AIDS and attitudes about people with AIDS. The
authors suggest that while this might seem disheartening to prevention
efforts, a correlation between high tolerance toward people with AIDS
and perceived invulnerability would imply that students empathize with
people with AIDS only if they feel that HIV/AIDS is something that
cannot happen to them. The lack of a correlation, therefore, may
actually indicate that students are empathetic toward people with AIDS
regardless of their own perceived susceptibility to the disease.
The authors go on to note that while students in general are expressing
more tolerant attitudes toward AIDS and people with AIDS today compared
with students a decade ago, there is still a large difference in the
perception of males and females. This indicates that HIV-prevention and
intervention programs must focus on the particular concerns of males and
The authors conclude by saying that analyzing changes in attitudes over
time is a useful approach that has practical applications. Such
comparisons can both describe trends and evaluate the effectiveness of
education programs. By focusing on both the similarities and
differences in attitudes over time, health professionals will be able to
adapt programs to students current needs and concerns.
For more information: K. E. Bruce and L. J. Walker, "College Students
Attitudes About AIDS: 1986 to 2000," AIDS Education and Prevention, vol.
13, no. 5, pp. 428-37.