the risky sex game paper – professional lessons
My first ever journal publication was an article called “A Game Theoretic Model of Sexually Transmitted Disease Epidemics.” It appeared in the journal Rationality and Society in 2002. As the title suggests, the goal of the paper is to model network diffusion using agents that play games with each other. Specifically, let’s assume people want to have sex with each other. The catch is that some people have HIV (or another disease) and some don’t. Further, let’s assume that people will estimate the probability that the partner has HIV based on the type of sex they offer and the current disease prevalence. In other words, offering unprotected sex in a world without STD’s is interpreted way differently than the same offer in a world where lots of people have infections. In this post, I want to briefly discuss what I learned by writing this paper. Tomorrow, I will talk about the small, but interesting, literature in biology and health economics that has referenced this paper.
Lesson #1: Interdisciplinary work doesn’t have to be garbage. The paper uses ideas from at least three different scholarly areas – game theory/economics; social networks/sociology; and probability theory/epidemiology. Orgtheory readers will be familiar with game theory and networks. But the paper uses a cool idea from probability theory called “pairs at a party model” – to model diffusion, you draw people from a pool and match them. I added these ideas: people can only be paired with people they know (the network) and then to decide if they have intercourse, they play a signalling game (game theory).
Lesson #2: Working with your buddies is amazing. My co-author on the project was Kirby Schroeder, who now works in the private sector. We developed the idea by thinking about his personal experience. Gay men often encounter the signaling problem – say you meet a partner and he offers unprotected sex. What does that suggest? We then joined forces to write the paper. Great experience.
Lesson #3: People can get angry at your research. During conferences and peer review, we experienced great hostility because we relied on the literature showing that sometimes, people don’t tell partners about STD’s and thus put them at risk. One woman, who claimed to be a researcher from Massachusetts General Hospital, literally yelled at me during an ASA session. The paper got rejected from Journal of Sex Research, after an R&R, because one reviewer got very upset and claimed that were defaming gay people and that “you don’t know what love means.” Do any of us, really?
Lesson #4: Long term matters. The paper was published in Rationality and Society and then quickly disappeared. But it had an interesting after life. It got an ASA grad student paper award from the Math Soc section. During the first couple of years on the job, it was the only journal publication on the CV, which saved me from complete embarrassment. In one review of my work, it was the *only* paper that the committee actually liked. Later, a member of the RWJ selection committee said that the paper was the only reason that they invited me for an interview, because it showed a genuine commitment to health research. Even better, starting around 2010, researchers rediscovered the paper and now it is part of a larger literature on sexual risk spanning biology, economics, and health. So even though it didn’t have an immediate impact, a well written paper can pay off in ways you might not expect.
Tomorrow: What people get from the Risky Sex Game paper.