Thursday, 6 July 2006

Well, it can't hurt to ask...Yes it can!

Asking someone how likely they are to take illegal drugs in the future can actually increase the likelihood that they will indeed take drugs – a finding with worrying implications for health research.

Patti Williams and colleagues recruited 167 undergrads and asked some of them about their intentions to take drugs, and the others about their intentions to exercise. Two months later, the students were contacted again, and those who had been asked about drugs reported taking drugs an average of 2.8 times in the intervening period, compared with an average of 1.1 times among the students previously asked about exercise.

The effect was even more dramatic when those students who said they hadn’t taken any drugs at all were omitted from the analysis. Among the remaining students, those asked about their drug-taking intentions said they’d used drugs an average of 10.3 times over the past two months, compared with an average of 4 times among the students previously asked about their exercise intentions.

This observation, together with further analysis, suggested it wasn’t that new drug users had been created, but rather that the questioning had led to increased use among current users who presumably had a positive attitude towards drugs in the first place.

“The results of the current study may well be troubling for researchers trying to survey respondents in at-risk populations”, the researchers said. “By virtue of surveying the at-risk population in an attempt to help them, serious harm may actually be done to the sampled group”.

It wasn’t all bad news – those students asked about their intentions to exercise subsequently reported having exercised more than the students who were earlier asked about their drug-taking intentions. But the message remains – asking someone a question about their intentions can alter their future behaviour, sometimes in negative ways.

Williams, P., Block, L.G. & Fitzsimons, G.J. (2006). Simply asking questions about health behaviours increases both healthy and unhealthy behaviours. Social Influence, 1, 117-127.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

UPDATE: Click 'comments' below - one of the authors of this research answers a reader's question and kindly provides a link to some forthcoming research that expands on the current findings.


Anonymous said...

This very interesting and provocative article raises several questions about non-verbal communication. Since approximately 90% of communication is non-verbal, it would be important to know what non-verbal messages the test subjects received alongside the verbal questions about drug use and exercise. As an example of this phenomonon from outside the laboratory, I worked the prison system for 5 years (in the USA) where I had a co-worker, a security officer whose unofficial duties included targeting certain inmates whom the warden wanted off the yard and into lockup for his own purposes. This co-worker's tactic was to approach such an inmate with an appropriate verbal greeting, combined with deniable non-verbal communications such as a slightly-longer-than-usual provocative stare. In contrast to non-offender populations, convicted offenders will predictably react to non-verbal cues more so than verbal cues. The result was that the inmate would predictably react to the stare with defensive aggression, such as perhaps the challenging question, "What are YOU looking at?" It was then an easy matter to further escalate the situation using similar tactics and then file charges of disorderly conduct, etc., against the inmate thus targeted. Whether this warden or this security officer's actions were unfairly manipulative are a separate question from the issue at hand in this research: to what non-verbal cues might the test subjects have been reacting?
- J. Paul Shirley, LMSW

Anonymous said...

Isn't this just a demonstration that people are inclined to remember and report what they think the questioner cares about? That is, where's the evidence that the behaviors changed at all? We know such self-report bias effects are strong, how could the researchers overlook them?
- S.

Gavan Fitzsimons said...

The issue raised in the comment by "S" above is one that my collaborators and I have thought about a lot. The best evidence that we have that the effect of asking questions about vice behaviors occurs on real behaviors (as opposed to self-reports) is probably in an article that will appear in the Journal of Consumer Research next year. In this followup work to the work we did on asking about drugs, we find that asking about a vice behavior changes actual behavior. For example, asking about skipping class leads to significant increases in respondents skipping class, despite substantial negative penalties in terms of their grades. We also explore what researchers can do to "innoculate" respondents against these negative effects in this paper too. If you're interested you can see the in press paper titled License to Sin on my web site at

Gavan Fitzsimons, Duke University

Pauline Watts said...

I wonder if this is similar to Solution focussed questions about the wished for future. Talking about it and visualisation not only makes it look possible but very likely to happen.

Sandy G said...

How does this relate to Cognitive Dissonance effecr? When the respondents were asked about likelihood of drug usage and (supposedly) they replied in the negative (to please the surveyor), then this small incentive to lie should have ideally led to a large Cognitive Dissonance and prompted them to stop using drugs and led to chnage in drug-usage behavior to overcome the dissonance experinced. Is some data available as to whether those who reported more drug usage later had replied in affirmative or in negative to the earlier drug-use-likelihood question? Is there a priming effect so strong that it is shadowing the cognitive dissonance effect? this study raises more questions than it answers!

happy said...

J. Paul Shirley, you seem to be very good at nonverbal things) May be you'd like to read more about eye contact?

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