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Why We Use Psychoactive Drugs

16 February, 2016 - 09:24

People have used, and often abused, psychoactive drugs for thousands of years. Perhaps this should not be surprising, because many people find using drugs to be fun and enjoyable. Even when we know the potential costs of using drugs, we may engage in them anyway because the pleasures of using the drugs are occurring right now, whereas the potential costs are abstract and occur in the future.

Research Focus: Risk Tolerance Predicts Cigarette Use

Because drug and alcohol abuse is a behavior that has such important negative consequences for so many people, researchers have tried to understand what leads people to use drugs. Carl Lejuez and his colleagues (Lejuez, Aklin, Bornovalova, & Moolchan, 2005) 1 tested the hypothesis that cigarette smoking was related to a desire to take risks. In their research they compared risk-taking behavior in adolescents who reported having tried a cigarette at least once with those who reported that they had never tried smoking.

Participants in the research were 125 5th- through 12th-graders attending after-school programs throughout inner-city neighborhoods in the Washington, DC, metropolitan area. Eighty percent of the adolescents indicated that they had never tried even a puff of a cigarette, and 20% indicated that they had had at least one puff of a cigarette.

The participants were tested in a laboratory where they completed the Balloon Analogue Risk Task (BART), a measure of risk taking (Lejuez et al., 2002). 2The BART is a computer task in which the participant pumps up a series of simulated balloons by pressing on a computer key. With each pump the balloon appears bigger on the screen, and more money accumulates in a temporary “bank account.” However, when a balloon is pumped up too far, the computer generates a popping sound, the balloon disappears from the screen, and all the money in the temporary bank is lost. At any point during each balloon trial, the participant can stop pumping up the balloon, click on a button, transfer all money from the temporary bank to the permanent bank, and begin with a new balloon.

Because the participants do not have precise information about the probability of each balloon exploding, and because each balloon is programmed to explode after a different number of pumps, the participants have to determine how much to pump up the balloon. The number of pumps that participants take is used as a measure of their tolerance for risk. Low-tolerance people tend to make a few pumps and then collect the money, whereas more risky people pump more times into each balloon.

Supporting the hypothesis that risk tolerance is related to smoking, Lejuez et al. found that the tendency to take risks was indeed correlated with cigarette use: The participants who indicated that they had puffed on a cigarette had significantly higher risk-taking scores on the BART than did those who had never tried smoking.

Individual ambitions, expectations, and values also influence drug use. Vaughan, Corbin, and Fromme (2009) 3 found that college students who expressed positive academic values and strong ambitions had less alcohol consumption and alcohol-related problems, and cigarette smoking has declined more among youth from wealthier and more educated homes than among those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds (Johnston, O’Malley, Bachman, & Schulenberg, 2004). 4

Drug use is in part the result of socialization. Children try drugs when their friends convince them to do it, and these decisions are based on social norms about the risks and benefits of various drugs. In the period 1991 to 1997, the percentage of 12th-graders who responded that they perceived “great harm in regular marijuana use” declined from 79% to 58%, while annual use of marijuana in this group rose from 24% to 39% (Johnston et al., 2004). 5 And students binge drink in part when they see that many other people around them are also binging (Clapp, Reed, Holmes, Lange, & Voas, 2006). 6

Figure 5.5 Use of Various Drugs by 12th-Graders in 2005 

Despite the fact that young people have experimented with cigarettes, alcohol, and other dangerous drugs for many generations, it would be better if they did not. All recreational drug use is associated with at least some risks, and those who begin using drugs earlier are also more likely to use more dangerous drugs later (Lynskey et al., 2003). 7 Furthermore, as we will see in the next section, there are many other enjoyable ways to alter consciousness that are safer.


  • Psychoactive drugs are chemicals that change our state of consciousness. They work by influencing neurotransmitters in the CNS.
  • Using psychoactive drugs may create tolerance and, when they are no longer used, withdrawal. Addiction may result from tolerance and the difficulty of withdrawal.
  • Stimulants, including caffeine, nicotine, and amphetamine, increase neural activity by blocking the reuptake of dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin in the CNS.
  • Depressants, including, alcohol, barbiturates, and benzodiazepines, decrease consciousness by increasing the production of the neurotransmitter GABA and decreasing the production of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine.
  • Opioids, including codeine, opium, morphine and heroin, produce euphoria and analgesia by increasing activity in opioid receptor neurons.
  • Hallucinogens, including cannabis, mescaline, and LSD, create an extreme alteration of consciousness as well as the possibility of hallucinations.
  • Recreational drug use is influenced by social norms as well as by individual differences. People who are more likely to take risks are also more likely to use drugs.


  1. Do people you know use psychoactive drugs? Which ones? Based on what you have learned in this section, why do you think that they are used, and do you think that their side effects are harmful?
  2. Consider the research reported in the research focus on risk and cigarette smoking. What are the potential implications of the research for drug use? Can you see any weaknesses in the study caused by the fact that the results are based on correlational analyses?