Negative Messages About Drugs May Not Deter Use

For decades, the messages in television and print advertising have advised audiences about the dangers of substance use. Images of frying eggs, blackened lungs and rotted teeth have been used as a way to convince student and adult populations of the negative consequences that can come with unhealthy choices.

However, the response to these forms of advertising has not been a radical shift away from drug and other substance use. Despite graphic images and testimonials from recovered addicts the use of drugs persists.

Recently, a team of researchers from Wayne State University and Indiana University examined the impact of negative messages on drug users. The study was conducted to gain understanding of why negative messages do not seem to reach those most in need of an intervention.

Principal investigator Joshua Brown is an associate professor in IU Bloomington’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences. He explains that many of the efforts to decrease drug use are public service announcements focused on negative messages about drugs. However, his team’s research shows that negative messages are not having the effect on the brain that was expected.

The researchers employed neuroimaging tools to examine the effects of negative messages on the brains of individuals with a substance addiction. The results were compared with those involving non-dependent participants.

In addition, the researchers tried to understand the source of the differences in the brain scans. They examined whether the problem was rooted in the communication between the message, the brain and the behavior, and where the communication was disrupted. Or, as the researchers examined, were substance-dependent participants sensitive to messages about risk, but experiencing a disconnect when it came to behavior? The researchers also questioned whether substance-dependent individuals might be perceiving the negative messages differently.

To address these unknowns, the researchers administered a virtual game, called the Iowa Gambling Task, which is a common tool used in research on decision-making. The game involved four decks of cards appearing on a screen, and participants were informed that certain decks were associated with winning or losing money.

Substance-dependent participants exhibited a lower level of brain activity when responding to a negatively-phrased explanation that a particular deck was associated with losing. In addition, the negative messages were connected to much worse and riskier decisions among substance-dependent participants.

The findings showed that those who are substance-dependent show lower levels of brain activity in regions of the brain that measure risk. Substance-dependent individuals process negative messages differently when compared to non-dependent participants, especially when the message is focused on negative outcomes associated with a risk.

The findings of the study add to a growing body of research that indicates that negative messages may not be an effective way to decrease substance dependence. The findings are published in a recent issue of the journal Psychology of Addictive Behaviors.