For years, governments have run advertisements about the dangers of alcohol and drugs. These often featured the negative effects of a substance. They carry messages like “Just say no” and “This is your brain on drugs”. But new research shows negative messages may be less effective on substance abusers.
"The findings are somewhat ironic because a whole lot of public service announcements say, 'Drugs are bad for you,' 'Just say no,' or 'This is your brain on drugs' with an image of an egg frying," said principal investigator Joshua Brown, associate professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences in IU Bloomington's College of Arts and Sciences. "What we're seeing is that negative messages are not having the same impact on the brain."
The experiment took a group of people, some of whom abused drug or alcohol and hooked them up to neuroimaging equipment. The subjects were then shown a variety of different messages and the resulting brain activity was then recorded.
The researchers found the brains of people with a substance abuse problem were less active when they were shown a negative message when compared with non-substance abusers. In fact, the negative messages often led to more risky decisions by substance abusers.
This could mean the brain activity in the risk assessing and judgement parts of the brains of substance abusers is lower than their substance free counterparts.
The implications of this study are potentially massive. Governments all over the world have poured millions into negative advertising and this could potentially change their entire game plan.
"The government spends millions every year trying to discourage drug use, and a lot of the ads highlight the dangers of drugs," Brown said. "Should we spend more to highlight the benefits of staying clean instead?"
This may not be the end of negative messages targeting substance abuse though. As of yet, Brown has not tested weather messages about the positive effects of staying clean are more effective. Another possible roadblock is the years of entrenched beliefs.
Many people have spent an immense amount of time and money creating negative campaigns. It may take a great deal of persuading to bring these people around to the notion that negative campaigns are ineffective. Brown is hoping his next experiment will change some of these peoples opinion.
He is working on a new test that will show weather positive messages are more effective at convincing substance abusers to get clean.