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30 Jan 08 – Just Say No? No! It Just Doesn’t Work.

30 January 2008


On this day in 1986, the then president of the American Psychological Association, Robert Perloff, presented the APA Presidential Citation to Nancy Reagan for her efforts in promoting the “Just Say No” campaign against drug abuse.  This is an interesting blip in the history of psychology given that there was no evidence at the time for or against the campaign.  Furthermore, now that evidence has come back, we have discovered that, just as with all other abstinence movements, it just didn’t work.


What does this mean that it didn’t work?  The anti-drug curricula developed was developed in the 1980s.  There was a steady drop in drug use from the early 1980s to about 1992.  However, this decline in drug use predated the effective implementation of this anti-drug movement.  By the time that it was fully implement (in the early 1990s), the use of drugs was again on the rise.  In 2002, for example, when the movement should have shown progress, 53% of seniors said they had used illegal drugs.  This is compared to 41% in 1992. 

What accounts for this negative trend?  Why didn’t the anti-drug curricula work?  Certainly, there are a number of potential hypotheses.  However, I would surmise it does not work because the pressure comes from an outside source.  The individuals targeted are not developing an internal motivation to follow through with non-use.   Essentially, the message is “conform to my peer pressure that involves non-use” and “don’t conform to other peer pressure that involves use.”  This is an odd message to begin with and certainly not a useful one to deter someone who has an inclination, however mild, to rebel against mandates from authority figures.


In fact, research on controlled behaviors versus autonomous behaviors predicts exactly this sort of behavior.  Controlled behavior, such as imposing perspective such as abstaining from drug use or anything else, involves an external perceived locus of causality (e.g., that something or someone other than the behaving individual determines the behaviors) and is experienced as pressured by demands and contingencies (e.g., to use or not use the drugs).  Autonomous behaviors, on the other hand, have an internal perceived locus of causality (e.g., that the behaving individual determines the presentation of the behaviors) and are experienced as chosen and volitional (e.g., that the individual is agentic).  Perceived autonomous, agentic behavior, as opposed to perceived controlled, determined behavior, is related to enhanced performance and persistence (e.g., continuing to abide by that personal choice).  Based on such findings, the discovery that drug use actually rose after individuals were told to abstain makes sense:  they perceived they were under control of outside forces, both forces toward and away from use, which made it easier for them to “change with the winds” of the forces upon them.  They were, in this sense, much like a sail boat without a captain: at the whim of forces not under their control. 

Alternatively, agency beliefs about effort and ability are the strongest and most critical predictors of actual performance.  In this sense, then, a better tack would have been to engage the individuals in discussion.  This discussion would be non-threatening and non-punitive, perhaps led by a respected peer.  The point of the discussion would be to address myths and misconceptions and provide facts but not provide mandates on behaviors.  The discussion would also involve an open discussion of what the individuals motivations for and against drug use (or other concerning behaviors), in order to address ambivalence regarding it.  Finally, the discussion would conclude with the individuals, themselves, stating their reasons for and against use of drugs and for them to make an honest, confidential assessment of their motivation to use or not use.   

Fuel for thought, I guess… head to my website for more fuel for thought regarding psychology.

January 30, 2008 Posted by | In Psychology | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment