WASHINGTON—Simply asking college students who are inclined to take drugs about their illegal-drug use in a survey may increase the behavior, according to newly published findings that are making some researchers understandably nervous.
"We ask people questions, and that does change behavior," study co-author Gavan Fitzsimons, a marketing professor at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business in Durham, N.C., said Thursday. The provocative effect, he added, can be "much greater than most of us would like to believe."
It's not just drug use that's affected by a researcher's questions, Fitzsimons said. People exercised more after they were asked how much they exercised. In a follow-up experiment, students who were asked about skipping classes and drinking cut class more and drank more.
Since the study appeared in the June issue of the academic journal Social Influence, Fitzsimons' research team has fielded calls from health practitioners concerned that asking patients about depression and possible thoughts of suicide might make matters worse. Other researchers suspect that people polled in political campaigns become more politically active.
For their study, Fitzsimons and co-researchers Patti Williams and Lauren Block, marketing professors at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and Baruch College in New York, respectively, split a sample of 167 undergraduate students into two groups. Those in the first group were asked how likely they were to use drugs in the next two months. Those in the second were asked how likely they were to exercise in the next two months.
Two months later, both were asked how often they'd exercised and how often they'd used drugs. Students in the first group said they'd used drugs an average of 2.8 times. Students in the second group, who hadn't been asked about drug use two months before, said they'd used drugs an average of 1.1 times.
When it came to exercise, students who'd been asked earlier about their exercise plans said they'd exercised about one-third more than students who hadn't been asked.
To assemble two balanced groups, the researchers initially asked the students about prior drug use and their attitudes toward it. This enabled them to conclude that the increased use was "only true for people who were already predisposed or in the at-risk group for drug use," Fitzsimons said. "People who never used drugs just had their negative opinions cemented."
Survey questions still pose some risk, however, said Williams, of the University of Pennsylvania. "It's very difficult, because policymakers still have to ask these questions but don't want to cause harm," she said. "Anytime you are asking about risky behaviors, there is a chance that merely asking will activate a positive attitude for those who already have a positive inclination toward the behavior."
Cliff Zukin, the president of the American Association of Public Opinion Research in Lenexa, Kan., which sets standards for the field, called the study eye-opening. He wondered whether college-student drug use might be easily provoked, which would suggest that the effect is milder than it seems.
"Surveys are not designed to influence behavior," added Zukin, a polling expert at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. "But when you talk to people about a topic, you get them thinking about that topic. That's a normal human reaction, and I don't see a way to get around that."
The new findings, he said, will "force us to really think about question wording."
The Office of National Drug Control Policy, which uses polls of teens and college students to focus its anti-drug appeals, has devised protocols to avoid unexpected adverse effects, spokesman Tom Riley said.
Fitzsimons and his team said they were seeking ways to minimize those effects, too.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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