Influence of Uncertainty on Responses to the Sexual Health Threat, Human Papillomavirus (HPV)

How do state and trait differences in uncertainty affect responses to a sexual health threat? In a series of studies we investigated how these differences in uncertainty relate to affective (e.g. anxiety) and behavioural (e.g. information-seeking) responses. We showed that a greater intolerance of uncertainty (IU) leads to more information-seeking about a health threat and individuals with higher IU sought the most information and worried most when they perceived the uncertainty surrounding a health threat to be higher rather than lower.

We then examined these questions using the real health threat of the human papillomavirus (HPV), a sexually transmitted infection that causes cervical cancer. We used a randomized controlled design to study the impact of an IU on anxiety after receiving an informational intervention about HPV in a clinical population of women. We found that meeting the informational needs of women with higher IU (i.e. giving them a lot of information about HPV) increased their anxiety compared to giving them less information. This heightened anxiety may arise because HPV is a health threat whereby uncertainty cannot be resolved through more information. Taken together, this research informed health providers regarding the potential positive and negative effects of uncertainty-inducing information.

This research was funded by doctoral fellowships to Dr. Natalie Rosen from the Psychosocial Oncology Research Training (PORT) program (funded by the Canadian Institute of Health Research, the Institute of Cancer Research, and the Institute of Health Services and Policy Research), and Les Fonds Québécois de la Recherche sur la Société et la Culture (FQRSC).

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