There has been no end to the research and studies attempting to pinpoint why some people become hooked on drugs and alcohol and others do not. The truth is, addiction is a personal crisis, something that occurs in people’s lives when they face personal hardships or undesirable conditions that they cannot overcome, so they use drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism.
This viewpoint has been validated by a body of research that posits all people are at risk for addiction, no matter their gender, age, race, cultural background, income level, career, upbringing, or geographic location. And if all people are to some degree at risk for addiction, then it makes sense to promote educational programs and prevention efforts that would inform all the American people about the harmful nature of drugs and alcohol.
Research Suggests All People are at Some Risk for Addiction
Brian Anderson, a professor at Texas A&M University, conducted a research project published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence. According to his findings, all humans have the potential for mental computations that might lead them to repeated consumption of mind-altering substances. From his research, we can surmise that people who fall prey to drug abuse are not struggling with “unique brain chemistry” that predisposes them to addiction. Rather, they are simply struggling with a slippery slope of mental pitfalls and life crises that anyone could experience.1
According to Anderson’s research, it all comes down to “attentional bias” and “drug cues.” In Anderson’s words, “Attentional bias is a tendency to direct your attention to something even when it conflicts with your goals, making it difficult to ignore. A drug cue is something that serves as a predictive cue for the experience of the drug. An example would be a syringe in the case of an injectable drug, or a bong in the case of a drug that is inhaled." When individuals begin using addictive substances, those substances, or reminders of them, have the powerful ability to capture the attention of the individual.2
Anderson goes on to argue that all humans have the potential to have their attention ‘hijacked’ by outside stimuli, thus imposing attentional biases connected to that stimuli. To show this, Anderson conducted a series of experiments. In the first part of the experiment, Anderson asked non-addicted participants to perform a task in which he rewarded them with money for finding certain colored objects. Then, participants moved into the second part of the experiment and performed a second task in which the previously rewarded objects were still present, but no longer rewarded. Alarmingly, participants in the second part of the experiment still paid excessive attention to the now-non-rewarded objects, suggesting some leftover attentional bias still connected to those objects.
The findings suggest that all humans are prone to attentional hijacking, with such hijacking being one of the primary ways in which drugs exert their control over users. It would seem that humans have the potential to be influenced by reward-based learning, often in ways that humans cannot control and in ways that are harmful.
“Rather, automatic biases are a normal part of life that we need to either consciously work against or replace with healthier habits when the ones we have led to bad outcomes.”
The research is humbling. It suggests that humans are ‘wired’ to respond to reward, suggesting that all humans may be at risk of falling prey to addiction should they experiment with a substance, even if they just use the substance once. Professor Anderson’s closing remarks state, “I think this is important to keep in mind when we try to make sense of why we and others we know do the things we do. Where we look and what we pursue are not always a reflection of our current conscious intentions. Rather, automatic biases are a normal part of life that we need to either consciously work against or replace with healthier habits when the ones we have led to bad outcomes.” If Anderson’s research is sound, and if every human truly is at some risk for addiction, then that means preventing drug use from occurring in the first place just became that much more important.
If Addiction Can Affect Anyone, It’s Time to Make Sure Everyone is Educated About It
One of the brilliant aspects of the human mind is that, when given new information, it can make logical and positive decisions based on that new information. It makes sense then that if all Americans are at some risk for addiction, public health leaders and community members should utilize educational efforts and information campaigns to inform the public about the harmful nature of drugs and alcohol. So informed, Americans would be less likely to turn to drugs and alcohol as coping mechanisms and less likely to allow their attention to be hijacked by drugs if they knew the harmful nature of such substances.
To back up this viewpoint, a research project that began over 40 years ago shows how, when young people are properly educated about drugs and alcohol, they are less likely to use substances later in life. A series of research projects begun in the 1980s that documented a decline in drug abuse among study participants thanks to educational programs delivered to 1980s-youth suggest that humans can use an influx of new and valuable information to guard themselves against future risk. And best of all, those research projects also indicated that the children of the 1980s kids who received intensive education about the harmful nature of drugs and alcohol were also less likely to use mind-altering substances, indicating the lasting and intergenerational benefit of drug education.3
It seems clear that all humans carry some inherent risk of becoming addicted to mind-altering substances if they begin using such substances. If this is true, it’s not something to despair over. It simply means that we must amplify prevention and education efforts.
If all humans are at some risk based on the inherent nature of the human mind and spirit, then the focus must be on making sure people don’t use drugs, not even once. Educational efforts have been proven effective in preventing people from experimenting with substances, hence the need to make sure such programs are available to all Americans, especially children, adolescents, and young adults.