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Finding A Positive Way To Discourage Substance Abuse

The usual tactics of anti-drug messaging—focus on the negative effects—are much less effective than using positive messages about sober lifestyles.

a person's hand holding pill in dramatic lighting

A recent study found negative messaging about drug addiction isn’t having an impact.

Most health-care professionals and many concerned citizens are asking how to combat the opioid epidemic that our country faces. One of the first steps has been to continue educating the public about the dangers of drug misuse and about paths to recovery.

So, how do we talk about this issue? For one thing, general information about prevention and recovery for individuals with substance-use disorders is often delivered in ad campaigns that highlight the negative consequences of substance misuse.

Smashed-Up Kitchens And Broken Eggs

Think of the old slogan “Just say no.” or the public service announcement that says, “This is your brain on drugs” with an image of an egg sizzling in a frying pan. These messages emphasize the negative effects of addiction, but many studies suggest that declarations like those are actually ineffective.

Researchers have used neuroimaging technology to study brain activity in people who were presented with positive and negative messages. Results gathered from individuals diagnosed with substance-use disorders were compared to individuals without those disorders.

Risk Assessment

Scientists found that the two groups processed the messages differently, especially when those messages emphasized future cost or gain. The level of brain activity related to assessing risk or danger was generally lower in individuals with a substance-use disorder.

This might suggest why negative campaigns aren’t that effective in convincing people to beat drug or alcohol addiction. But when health campaigns represent the option to quit as the better choice, the brain has an adverse reaction to the worse alternative.

Essentially, the brain reacts against the potential costs of drug abuse. So, we might be more effective in discouraging drug misuse by highlighting the benefits of staying clean.

Sources And Further Reading:

  • Just say no. Not?” Indiana University, Bloomington: Research. October 26, 2012. Accessed February 21, 2018.
  • Fukunaga, R., Bogg, T., Finn, P. R., & Brown, J. W. (2013). Decisions during negatively-framed messages yield smaller risk-aversion-related brain activation in substance-dependent individuals. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 27(4), 1141-1152. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0030633

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