Reporting on drugs impairs mental performance

Researching the mental effects of chemicals on humans is notoriously difficult and complicated, not least because of the immense amount of ways that a certain person may react to any given substance, the huge number of external factors that may be involved in a psychological outcome, and the difficulty in quantifiably measuring many mental effects. Add to this the sometimes extreme politicisation and bias of results that comes when researching controversial topics like the use of illegal drugs and one can see that researching the mental effects of banned-but-fun substances is especially troublesome.

This trouble is often seen in mass-media reports of such experiments. Often, presumably in order to make the "news" exciting and dramatic for their readers the "shock horror - you will die if you even look at illegal drugs" conclusions are heightened to the max, and any opposing conclusions, grey areas and other interpretations of the same data are ignored. Not only does this undermine any sensible attempt at presenting results with potentially important public health conclusions to the public at large, but research suggests that it could be this very style of reporting that causes some of the mental problems it shouts about so loudly.

Cole et al. examined what is known as "stereotype threat" in a paper published in 2005. Stereotype threat is the name given to a psychological phenomenon discovered via numerous studies that, under the right circumstances, if a person is primed to believe that they are a member of a group that performs terribly at a given task - say a maths test - then when they are actually given that task they do indeed perform badly at it; and moreover, they perform worse than had an identical task been attempted without the "you are not good enough" style priming.

Typically, studies have been done to investigate the concept with regard to stereotypes such as that black people perform worse at academic examinations that white people do, and that women are worse at mathematics then men. In both these specific cases and more, the existence of such stereotype threat was demonstrated. The blacks performed worse than the whites at the exam, and the women were worse than the men at maths when these stereotypes were deliberately instigated to be fresh in their own minds; but performance equalised in similar tests where these stereotypical thoughts had not been reinforced.

Cole et al. therefore set out to test whether there was a similar effect in users of the currently-illegal drug ecstasy. It is part of much of the Western "developed" world's "common sense" that any filthy druggy that dares break the entirely arbitrary law of their land and have a ecstasy tablet now and then (as opposed to drinking Special Brew to the point of black-out every night) is immediately condemning themselves to losing their mental faculties and most likely ending up in a pit of mental anguish and insanity.

This stereotype is reinforced no end by media reporting, drug "education" and the like - forget for one moment even the trash that is the Daily Mail and its like; even "reputable" news sources such as the BBC love their drama-drama headlines like "Ecstasy immediately damages memory", "Ecstasy link to brain damage" and so on, and a recent UK Government anti-drugs campaign under the guise of Talk To Frank has been running with the premise that if you use illegal drugs you will need to go to a shop and buy yourself a new brain.

Whether or not any of this drugs-mash-up-your-mind has basis in fact is not what the Poorhouse is discussing here. The important point with regards to stereotype threat is that the message that if you use illegal drugs you will perform badly at mental tasks is being reinforced regularly into many populations.

And guess what - it seems the stereotype effect does indeed have an effect. Cole et al. recruited two groups for their studies: those who had used ecstasy vs those that had not. They then divided these groups into 2 subgroups each; those to be primed, and those who were not.

They were then all given a sheet to read regarding the study they were about to undertake. This study was to consist of these volunteer groups taking part in cognitive tests, which would then later be analysed to see with the 4 populations had any group-differences. For the people who were in the "to be primed" group the information sheet included text describing how there was "strong evidence linking ecstasy use and mnemonic dysfunction", whereas the non-primed group got sheets stating that there was no conclusive evidence that this connection was true. Both these statements were reinforced as appropriate by the researchers verbally later.

The volunteers were then set to work. They completed the "Rivermead Behavioural Memory Test" (RTBM), "Digital Span" and the "Controlled Oral Word Assocation" tests. See the full study for more details on these.

The results? Well, given all the scare-mongering that goes on you might be surprised to hear that there were not massively significant differences in many of the tests showing that the ecstasy users have indeed lost all their thinking ability due to too many nights out on the pills. The striking effect that was noticed however, was (surprise surprise) that the ecstasy users primed with the "e wrecks your cognitive abilities" info did perform substantially worse than all other groups on the RTBM task - the most obvious memory test component.

To quote the researchers:

Ecstasy users who were primed that ecstasy use damaged the brain and led to memory problems recalled fewer items in the delayed component of the prose recall task from the RBMT than those ecstasy users who were not primed. This suggests that these individuals may be experiencing stereotype threat as the overwhelming
majority of the participants believed that ecstasy use caused memory loss and psychiatric problems. Therefore, the effects of stereotype threat may be a greater problem in this type of experiment than is currently believed.

As it happened, the non-primed ecstasy users seemed to do the best on the task.

There are of course all sorts of potential flaws in a study such as this, especially in the specifics of the methodology. The authors discuss these at length on page 523 of the report. Nonetheless this finding, backed up with other studies demonstrating the stereotype threat effect, does have great potential significance. Firstly, as the authors imply, we must be aware of the possibility that just about any cognitive research done on drug users has the potential to be biased by the subject's own mental-stereotype of the effects of their substance of choice on cognition. As the authors say:

The findings reported here suggest that stereotype threat may be contributing to the observed memory deficits in ecstasy users detected in other research studies.

Furthermore both people involved in spreading the news and those actually formulating drug policy, especially those involved in drug education fields, should also be aware of the problems they may be causing however inadvertently. The shock-horror style media reporting of "drugs wreck your mind", and the backing it often seems to be implicitly given by the UK Government's attempts at dissipating drugs education to potential users, may well actually be simply reinforcing these stereotypes in the minds of users - causing them to suffer lower mental performance as a result of the stereotype threat rather than because of any chemical in the drug alone. This could produce by definition, as the study authors accurately put it, a self-fulfilling prophecy, with significant implications for public health.

Reference:

Cole et al. "The effects of stereotype threat on cognitive function in ecstasy users",Journal of Psychopharmacology, Vol. 20, No. 4, 518-525 (2006)


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