Digging Deeper Into Your Brain on Drugs


Carson B. Wagner, an advertising professor at the University of Texas at Austin, has studied the effects of colorful anti-drug ads on viewers using not just explicit self-reporting of attitudes but a technique known as response latency measurement of strength of association:

?Rather than directly asking research participants to express their attitudes about drugs, response latency SOA measures allow researchers to gauge people?s attitudes without their direct knowledge, thereby yielding a more accurate measure of the research participant?s attitudes that better predicts behavioral decision-making under various conditions.?
Essentially, response latency measurement involves recording the time it takes a research participant to categorize a positive or negative adjective after being primed with a certain concept?in this instance, illicit drugs. The more quickly the subject categorizes negative adjectives such as ?bad? or ?horrible,? as opposed to positive adjectives such as ?good? or ?wonderful,? the stronger and more negative their association with the idea of illicit drugs.

Wagner measured drug attitudes after viewing some Partnership for a Drug-Free America ads using both standard methods and response latency tests:

The results showed that people who self-reported their attitudes after viewing the anti-drug ads expressed strong anti-drug sentiments, as opposed to the weaker anti-drug sentiments measured in the response latency tests after viewing the same anti-drug ads. These findings suggested that, compared to response latency measures, self-report measures exaggerated the effectiveness of anti-drug ads…… ?Based on these findings, the self-report surveys may have produced inflated claims of the ads? effects,? he concludes.

One of Wagner's counterintuitive conclusions from this is that for maximal effectiveness, government drug propagandists should try to make their ads less attention-grabbing and to situate them during programs that people are less interested in. (They could also just stop the propaganda war, but Professor Wagner doesn't mention that.)

[Link via Ben Woosley of Libertarian Longhorns]

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  1. “Libertarian Longhorns” that`s got to be an endangered species indigenous to Babylon on the Brazos.

  2. This reminds me of the studies which purport to show that violent TV shows turn people into homicidal maniacs. It assumes that response latency tests provide a more significant measure of people’s attitudes than their stated views.

    An interesting comparison would be to do a response latency test on people who have just seen a movie, measuring their responses to the names of the characters. It might well turn out that the people tested respond quickly with “admirable” to the name of the hero and “despicable” to the villain, but would that show that their thinking had really been affected?

    Incidentally, the Office of National Drug Policy has just started plastering the MBTA with the pro-hypocrisy ads that were mentioned here a while back. After seeing those, I’m sure I’d have quick latency responses on “feds – disgusting”, “drug war – disgusting”, etc. But the only difference is that my disgust has been brought closer to the surface.

  3. “Babylon on the Brazos” is Baylor in Waco, I think. At least that’s where the Brazos is. The river in Austin is the Colorado

  4. They musthave been high to think up this experiment. Too bad they didn’t have a chance to evaluate the paid in-program propaganda perpetuated by Gen. MacCaffery.

  5. Glen,
    Rightttt,I never venture north of I-10.Thanks for the correction.

  6. The river in Austin is the Colorado?? Definitely not the famous Colorado River that runs from the Never Summer Mountains in Rocky Mountain National Park through Lake Powell and the Grand Canyon and into California!

  7. I know that “public” service ads always get a contrarian response out of me.

    There’s a character in a Stephen novella called “Road Work,” who objects to what he calls the “trained dog ethos”: the tendency of the public to try to be good citizens, or Do-bees, or whatever, by doing whatever the PSAs tell them.

    This character’s response is just the opposite. Public figures and “experts” are constantly on TV warning people to avoid energy-wasting appliances like blenders, and to conserve gas (the story’s set during the energy crisis of the early ’70s). So our hero leaves the blender running until the motor burns out, and spends every day from dawn til dusk filling up his tank and driving aimlessly on the freeway until he empties it.

    That character resonates strongly with me. I don’t pursue contrarianism to the point of working against my own interests, as he did. But any time I see a guy in a suit on TV telling me what I ought to do, I pretty much assume he’s an asshole who doesn’t have my interests at heart, until he proves otherwise. I figure when the chattering classes are hell-bent on modifying my behavior in a certain direction, it’s in my best interest to resist such conditioning, or at least subject the motives of the conditioners to rational analysis.

    Anyone whose behavior is actually influenced by a PSA (Be cool–stay in school! Users are losers!) is a moron.

  8. fyodor – the name “Colorado” refers to the color of the water.

  9. I think the dumbest anti-drug message I ever saw was on the flap of a box of Lemonheads, “Don’t Use Drugs.” Yup, that sure kept me from a life of drug use. Thank goodness the Lemonhead company was looking out for me.

  10. Yes Fyodor it’s the same river

  11. I’m a dork.

    I coulda sworn the two rivers connected in West Texas/New Mexico…

    And I’m a native Texan

    I’m so lame.

    Taking off my spurs

  12. Ah hell, those warnings on the boxes never kept me from smoking…

  13. I will laugh my ass off if the ONDCP can’t seem develop an ad that responds favorably to a response latency test.

  14. kevin: i’m surprised there aren’t more people who do this. it’s the only way to get through the car ads to enjoy a round of the simpsons (or the chubb ads to get through antiques roadshow 🙂

    psa’s are even worse. i still can’t believe they did that ad with the two kids in the billion dollar study with the bong and the handgun. much less the drive through…or the kid wandering towards the pool…etc

  15. If only they’d had those Lemonhead boxes when I was a lad…

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