Sean Young, PhD, Reports Back from CDC HIV Conference on New Year's Resolutions

1. As a psychologist and researcher, what are the hardest New Years Resolutions for you to stick to?  Do you find that professional goals are easier to achieve than personal goals?

I wouldn't say the difficulty is broken down by professional goals vs personal ones. The great thing about psychology is that it doesn't care about domain. It doesn't care whether people are making resolutions to change business goals, health goals, relationship goals, or any other goals. What matters is the context of those goals, within the person, their surrounding, and their experience. That's a bit vague so I'll be more concrete.

The hardest New Years Resolutions to stick to are ones that require the biggest change in lifestyle to keep. If something is really tough to change, it will be tough to keep. If it's easy to change, it will be easier to keep. Take dieting as a resolution. My undergrad professor, Traci Mann, has done a lot of research and shown that diets don't work. Aside from biological reasons in people's genetics, most diets fail because they're diets, or big immediate changes in people's behaviors. They have been eating unhealthy food for a long time and decide that because it's the New Year, they'll have the ability to instantly change the way they eat. Most New Years Resolutions fail for the same reason. People want to instantly change something that has been part of their lifestyle for weeks, months, or years.

So the bad news is, New Years Resolutions need to be kept in perspective with how people have been living. If a person walks 50 steps a day, making a resolution to walk 10,000 steps a day won't last. The good news is, that there are ways to keep resolutions. People just need to keep them in perspective and make resolutions that are manageable. There are a lot of other ways to help keep on track based on our research. Some of these I mentioned in last week's Q and A, like the science of social. 

2. After attending the CDC's recent HIV prevention conference in Atlanta, do you find yourself shifting your own priorities to align with the research community as a whole?

I've realized I've been a researcher my whole life. It started long before my research assistant days at UCLA or doctoral work at Stanford. It started as a child as I loved learning about things and how they work. One of the most important things that I keep learning is that I need to always keep an open mind. I need to always listen to other people's ideas and perspective, no matter how crazy people might think they are, because I learn from them and it helps to guide my research. That's a broad answer to your question. The straight answer is, definitely. I'm constantly rethinking studies, research, and my own assumptions based on what I learn from the research community as well as everyone else. I learned a lot about people's perceptions of PREP at the HIV prevention conference in Atlanta and have been thinking about how technologies can be incorporated into Prep education and behavior change.

3. What are the main takeaways that you got from the CDC conference?  Where will HIV prevention be at this point in 2016?

The main takeaways is that although there is still a lot of work to do to reduce the spread of HIV, we've been getting some answers. Really importantly, we've been having support for controversial approaches from top officials, like the NIH director support use of Prep. For me, as a technology researcher wanting to find ways to predict, prevent, and change HIV risk, the main takeaways is that there is so much opportunity for tools to be used in this space. Researchers are very open to these tools but don't have the time to be aware of them. Because innovation and tech tools seem to always be at the forefront of how HIV is spread, we need to use that innovation to prevent and stop the spread of HIV. I'm excited that our team has the ability to do that and we're getting a great response from people all over the world who want to work with us and apply our research.

4. What steps can clinicians, families and societies take to remove the stigma from both HIV prevention pills and HIV testing?

Stigma is the belief that a person or thing is unwanted, disgraced, or or shameful. It can lead to a lot of negative consequences. When people are stigmatized they feel badly about themselves, they can lose their friends and family, their jobs, and can have worse health. When things are stigmatized, like getting an HIV test, it makes people to not want to do them. We've done a lot of studies on how stigma works and how it stops people from taking care of their health. (One of those studies you might like involved telling students they were at risk for a disease, and learning they they more or less convinced themselves they couldn't have contracted a disease if it was stigmatized).

Stigma is caused by lack of knowledge, lack of discussion, and lack of normalcy. The way to reduce or get rid of stigma is to educate people, make them aware of how stigma works, and make them see the stigmatized person or thing is common. For example, HIV testing is stigmatized. Just showing up to an HIV testing site could make people stigmatized. They could be judged by others in the clinic, by their doctors, by people seeing them getting tested. They could be judged as being "the type of people" who have HIV. To reduce this stigma, we can do things like talking about testing more, getting people to test more, and making testing more public so that people can see how many people test for HIV and that people from all ages, races/ethnic groups, and educational statuses test for HIV. That's great that so many people test, and it needs to be made more public. We found that stigma could be reduced by making the stigmatized thing (for example, testing) required. We also found that offering it in traditional settings like in vending machines may reduce stigma and get more people to test for HIV. 

5. What steps can Grindr, Tinder, Match.com and other online dating websites take to help prevent HIV?

These are dating/hook-up businesses and so they're less interested in preventing HIV than in their business, so I wouldn't expect them to make any major changes to help prevent HIV. Some of them are concerned about losing users if they try to promote HIV testing as they don't want to be branded as a public health site or place that is trying to get people to do anything other than find dating or hook-up partners. That being said, there are a few things they can do that could help prevent the spread of HIV and shouldn't negatively impact their business. First, they can be open to HIV researchers. Second, they can offer a feature that allows people to say if they have gotten an HIV test. Third, these sites and researchers can begin sharing data with each other to mutually find how to make their users safer and healthier.

Sean Young PhD

UCLA Center for Digital Behavior, Medical Plaza, Los Angeles, CA, 90024, United States

Sean Young, PhD, MS is the Executive Director of the UCLA Center for Digital Behavior. I'm a scientist, innovator, and UCLA medical school professor. I study the science behind human digital behavior (see digitalbehavior.ucla.edu for more info about this field of research).I also assemble technology teams and solutions to improve UCLA Family Medicine patient care. For more info or to contact me: www.SeanYoungPhD.com