The Influence of Attributional Style on Substance Use and Risky Sexual Behavior among College Students

Article excerpt

HIV, AIDS, STIs, and unwanted pregnancy continue to impact young adults in the U.S. at a disproportionate rate, particularly during the college years. Attributional style (i.e., locus of control) influences one's HIV risk. Internal locus of control indicates a lower risk of HIV infection, whereas an external locus of control signals an increased risk of HIV. A sample of 1,874 university students aged 16-54 years were surveyed to determine if sexually active males versus females with external, unstable, and specific causal attribution (i.e., external locus of control) engaged in safer sexual practices (e.g., condom use) and lesser alcohol and legal/illicit drug use. Results indicated that male students with an external attributional style engaged in a greater number of unsafe sexual behaviors (e.g., multiple partners) and higher amounts of alcohol and drug use than female students. Additionally, for both males and females, an internal attributional style was associated with greater drug use and a greater likelihood to engage in HIV-related risk behavior. Comprehensive sexual health and substance use education targeting college students should consider attributional style in relation to health promoting and protective behaviors.

Keywords: college, attributional style, substance use, health risk behaviors, HIV, STIs


Viruses differ from infectious agents, such as bacteria, in their unrelenting need to infect and multiply within their host. The body's immune system serves as a protective means from infectious agents, including viruses, bacteria, and fungi. However, the goal of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is to attack and destroy the host's CD4 or immune cells (TeachAIDS, 2010). Unlike other worldly viruses, HIV is an incurable disease that targets specific immune system cells, eventually destroying these cells and rendering the body incapable of warding off secondary infections. HIV is easily transmittable and can infect anyone, as the virus does not discriminate based upon gender, sexual orientation/preference, race, socioeconomic status, or religion (International Olympic Committee, n.d.; News Medical, 2011; United Nations Population Fund, 2008).

An estimated 1.2 million Americans are HIV-positive, one in five who do not know their HIV status, and approximately 50,000 new cases of HIV are reported each year. Currently, young adults are becoming infected with HIV at increasing rates each year. When it comes to the issue of HIV, not every university student is aware of the risks or means of transmission. More specifically, in 2009, adolescents and young adults between the ages of 13 and 29 were tested for and constituted 39% of new HIV infections. Those aged 20 to 24 years old accounted for the highest rate of newly HIV infected individuals (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC], 2011), supporting the hypothesis that those with the highest rate of new HIV diagnoses are college-aged students (Mecoli, 2011; Pablo, 2012). These recent statistics highlight the fact that this newly HIV-infected demographic was more than likely to have been infected during their college years. College students are developing personal values, principles, independent thinking styles, and identity throughout their four years attending a university and are often not concerned with the possibility of becoming infected with an incurable disease. In addition, students have been known to be promiscuous and experimental via engaging in risky sexual behaviors or experimenting with drugs, which is further perpetuated by their invincible mentality. According to the American College Health Association's (ACHA) (2011) National College Health Assessment, 8.3% of the sample reported four or more sexual partners within the past 12 months, and 27.2% reported using drugs within the last 30 days (e.g., smokeless tobacco, marijuana, or illicit drugs such as cocaine, methamphetamine, sedatives, hallucinogens, MDMA). …


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