Subjective expected utility of health-risk behaviors

Charles Eugene Harris

Abstract

This study focused on the health-risk behaviors of alcohol drinking, cigarette smoking, and high-risk sexual behavior within the theoretical perspective of Subjective Expected Utility (SEU, Edwards, 1954). SEU is a measure of an individual's assessment of the probability of a consequence's occurring, multiplied by the desirability of various outcomes as a result of engaging in a specific behavior. It was the purpose of this study to replicate and expand previous research (Bauman & Bryan, 1980) in this area. The study was conducted in the fall and spring semesters of 1995-1996 at the University of Southern Mississippi. The sample included 156 undergraduate psychology students who completed a self-report questionnaire. The questionnaire assessed demographics, health-risk behaviors, and the SEU of the three health-risk behaviors. SEU was assessed by using a list of 40 consequences taken from a series of Bauman and associates' previous studies that examined health-risk behaviors. These consequences were developed through pilot studies designed to identify possible outcomes (positive & negative consequences) of engaging in alcohol drinking, cigarette smoking, and/or high-risk sexual activity. The current study hypothesized that there would be positive correlations between SEU, its components (probability & desirability), and the positive consequences of each of the health-risk behaviors. Results partially supported these hypotheses, more so for alcohol drinking and high-risk sex than for cigarette smoking. Results suggest that the more that people engage in these health-risk behaviors, the greater are their expectancies and desires of positive consequences, whereas they tend to deny or minimize the negative consequences of such behavior.