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Socially Optimized Learning in a Virtual Environment: Reducing Risky Sexual Behavior Among Men Who Have Sex With Men


Corresponding author: Stephen J. Read; e-mail:


A socially optimized learning approach, which integrates diverse theoretical perspectives, places men who have sex with men (MSM) in an interactive virtual environment designed to simulate the emotional, interpersonal, and contextual narrative of an actual sexual encounter while challenging and changing MSM's more automatic patterns of risky responses. MSM assume a character's identity and are scaffolded in their decision-making and relearning process by supportive, and often humorous, peer coaches who encourage situated learning of self-regulatory and behavioral skills, and tailor and frame their responses to be responsive to the men's behavioral choices. In a longitudinal design, participants were randomly assigned to receive either an interactive video (IAV) intervention with peer counseling or to a peer-counseling-alone control. Compared to the counseling alone, men who also received the IAV reduced risky anal sex behaviors and increased protected anal sex behaviors.