A well-meaning parent who asks an adolescent a single question, like "are you using illegal drugs?" may contribute to the use of more drugs, not less, according to a new study that shocked even the researchers.
"It was pretty startling," says Gavan Fitzsimons, associate professor of marketing and psychology at Duke University, one of the authors of a report in the journal Social Influence.
Fitzsimons and several colleagues have been studying the psychology of consumers -- why they buy what they buy -- for years, and they thought they were building on a firm foundation when they recruited 167 undergraduates for an experiment. Their previous research, as well as work by others, seemed to make it clear that if you ask a question involving a positive activity, it will lead to an increase in that activity. Ask a question about a negative activity, like illegal drug use, and it should lead to a decrease in that activity.
Many studies had confirmed that pattern of negative vs positive.
So when Patti Williams of the University of Pennsylvania, Lauren Block of Baruch College in New York, and Fitzsimons set out on their latest project, they weren't expecting any surprises.
The participants in the study were divided into two groups. The students were guaranteed anonymity, and told they were taking part in a national survey of attitudes among college students.
One group was asked a positive question: "How likely are you to exercise in the next two months?"
The other group was asked a question that was expected to be viewed as negative, or perhaps even anti-social: "How likely are you to use any illegal drugs in the next two months?"
Two months later the participants were called back. The students in the exercise group were asked how often they had exercised during the two-month period. The students in the other group were asked how often they had used illegal drugs during the same period.
"We thought those were positive and negative examples of health behavior," Fitzsimons says.
According to a significant body of research, students asked about exercise (a positive activity) should have reported two months later that they had increased their level of exercise, and they did just that.
And students asked about illegal drug use (a negative activity) should have reported a decrease in use. But that didn't happen. Students asked about drugs actually reported an increase in the use of drugs.
"When we saw the data, we thought there must be something wrong," Fitzsimons says. "Did we make an error? We looked and looked at it, and sure enough, it [increase in negative behavior] was there."
They did additional studies on various vices, and found similar results.
So they went back to the data and took a long, hard look at it.
Students who were asked during the first session about their intentions to exercise did, in fact, exercise more -- 20.4 times during the two month period compared to 13.9 times for those who had not been asked about exercise.
And the students who were asked earlier about drug use turned to drugs far more often than students who were not asked about drugs. Those who were asked about drugs reported using them an average of 10.3 times during the two month period, compared to an average of four times for those who had not been asked.
The researchers emphasize that no students who were not already using drugs crossed over the line. Only those who were already into drugs reported an increase.
But why did they step it up, since research suggested just the opposite result?
"We thought that when we asked the question about exercising and using drugs that these were positive and negative examples of health behavior," Fitzsimons says. "But what we didn't realize is that certain folks have a more complicated view of drugs. They may report that drugs aren't good, that they are bad things, but deep down at a gut level they have a positive attitude toward engaging in the use of drugs.
"It was a very different result because we had inadvertently tapped into this gut level positive attitude."
They viewed drugs positively, Fitzsimons notes, or they wouldn't have been using them. So, simply asking the question stimulated the use of more drugs.
That indicates that if you don't really know the person you're interrogating, you could get a very different result and the question could "backfire," he adds.
"You actually end up doing harm."
So, going back to the home environment, has the parent really done any harm by asking the child if he or she is doing drugs?
Maybe, if that's where the discussion ends, Fitzsimons says.
But if, on the other hand, that question led to a dialogue between parent and child, the results should be quite different.
"If you talk to your child and engage in a dialogue about the pros and cons, that's going to be an entirely different thing," he says. "We found that when you move into a dialogue, you don't get these surprising increases in behavior."
But it doesn't always work out that way.
"The thing I really worry about is the one-time question, seemingly innocuous, that never gets returned to," Fitzsimons says. "That's where we're going to observe these negative effects on behavior."
He poses this scenario:
"Mom asks Johnny, 'are you doing drugs?' Johnny answers, 'oh, no, mom.' End of discussion. That's really dangerous.
"You know Johnny has thought about it."