Truth or D.A.R.E. : The Fatal Flaws of the Popular Drug Abuse Education Campaign – Ashley Ferguson
Anti-drug campaigns are an integral part of childhood education and one of the most prominent, well known of these anti-drug campaigns is D.A.R.E (Drug Abuse Resistance Education). Daryl F. Gates founded D.A.R.E., a non-profit organization, in 1983 with the mission “to provide children with the information and skills they need to live drug-and-violence-free lives” (9). Additionally, it aims at creating positive relationships between students and community leaders such as police officers, teachers and parents. It fosters these relationships by educating students about the consequences of substance abuse and violence through the partnership of law enforcement and local schools. Despite how well intentioned the D.A.R.E. program was and is there is much controversy about its effectiveness (4 & 7). However, it is a difficult task to combat an anti-drug campaign. No one wants to be pro-youth drug use and abuse. The many reviewers and skeptics of the program argue that D.A.R.E. is not sufficiently nor successfully achieving its mission thus a popular argument that is heard is that there are better curriculums and programs that can be used to help keep our youth drug and violence free (4).
Critique Argument 1: Focus on Individual Models
D.A.R.E. like many public health campaigns focused their program on individualistic models, one of which was promoted by Ajzen and Fishbein in 1980, the theory of reasoned action (TRA). Ajzen and Fishbein formulated the TRA after trying to understand and conceptualize the inconsistency between people’s attitudes versus behaviors. After some additional research it was believed that behavior was not completely voluntary which resulted in theory of planned behavior (TPB). TRA/TPB aims at working with both people’s behavior and attitudes. This theory focuses on the rational decision making processes and so in order for this theory to work there is an assumption of rational and reasoned behavior (10). “The TRA model follows the process of a person’s attitude towards a specific behavior then their perception of the subjective norms associated with that behavior.” Weighing these two aspects out can result in behavioral intention. (3)
The TRA does at least take into consideration the social framework around a particular person’s behavioral decision making. However there are many critiques of the TRA/TPB. Mainly, TRA assumes humans behave rationally in which linear decision process occurs in a rational manner. Deeper into this rationality critique lies the fundamental issues with the individualistic concept of a model. D.A.R.E. focuses heavily on changing each individual’s thoughts on drugs and addiction rather than changing at the group level. Thaler and Sunstein explain that humans “are easily influenced by the statements and deeds of others” (8). D.A.R.E. doesn’t tap into these behaviors which is extremely counter productive since they have to work so hard against the power of group mentality that influences young adults to use drugs in the first place. According to Thaler and Sunstein there are two main social influences: information and peer pressure. Both concepts are prevalent motivators for the young adult target audience of the D.A.R.E. campaign. In reference to information, “if many people do something or think something, their actions and their thoughts convey information about what might be best for you to do or think” (8). While the second takes into consideration “if you care about what other people think about you… then you might go along with the crowd to avoid their wrath or curry their favor” (8). Both information and peer pressure are reasons why youth continue to use drugs even having been educated by the D.A.R.E.
Research performed by Solomon Asch further explains why D.A.R.E.’s basis in an individualistic model led to its failure. Through his research he “capture[d] something universal about humanity” and how people conform to the people around them (8). These research findings of Asch and many other social scientists exemplify the importance of having a group model in drug education and awareness campaigns. Thaler and Sunstein discuss the “social norms approach, which tries to reduce drinking and other undesirable activities” in their Following the Herd article (8). Misperceptions of how prevalent under-age binge drinking actually works to propel this horrific cycle rather than informing people that it occurs and to stop. “College students are influenced by their beliefs about what other college students do, and hence alcohol abuse will inevitably increase if students have an exaggerated sense of how much other students are drinking” (8).
D.A.R.E. was so focused on using the individual based model of theory of reasoned action (planned behavior) that it fell short in its campaign strategy because it didn’t take into consideration any of the research discussed in Thaler and Sunstein’s article. D.A.R.E.’s campaign actually makes drugs seem more prevalent as well as glamorizing them by using police officers with their gadgets who come to the classroom and give free goodies like buttons, bumper stickers, tee-shirts, sodas, ribbons, diplomas and awards to capture the youth’s interest. This draws an excessive amount of attention to drug use and creates peer pressure and conformity, which could actually increase drug appeal.
Critique Argument 2: Communications Theory
The D.A.R.E. campaign, like all campaigns has an aim and it attempts to persuade people in their target audience to believe or behave in a manner that matches this aim. For D.A.R.E. their aim is to reduce youth’s drug abuse through education. The problem that D.A.R.E. faces is not that this is a poor goal but rather their persuasive technique. According to The Britannica Encyclopedia persuasion is “the process by which a person’s attitudes or behavior are influenced by communications from other people.” The D.A.R.E. program didn’t use successful persuasion techniques in their campaign (6).
Communications theory is a powerful theory about what makes a message effective versus what makes a message ineffective. This type of persuasion is often used in advertising and has been extremely effective in that arena and can and should be used in public health campaigns. There are four aspects of communications theory that if utilized can create an extremely persuasive campaign. The first aspect is the concept of likeability. With respect to campaigns the person who delivers the message has to be likeable by the target audience. D.A.R.E.’s campaign culture is one of an authoritative nature therefore pride themselves on the use of police officers as their messengers. Advocates for D.A.R.E. argue that having the police involved in the education of the students is positive for multiple reasons. However, looking at this psychological concept of communications and likeability the use of police officers is actually more harmful than good. In communities where drug use is the most prevalent police officers don’t have a likeable reputation. It is important to build a relationship between police officers and students at a young age in order to break down barriers having them be the messenger is not the most effective way to persuade the youth to stop/avoid abusing drugs.
Secondly there is familiarity. Familiarity can come from something that has repeated exposure like a common expression or a celebrity or it can also be related to something that is recognizable to the target audience (6). Tapping into something that a target audience would remember from their own life experiences could utilize this concept for a positive connection with the campaigns message. D.A.R.E. tried with some of its logos but unsuccessfully to connect using this aspect.
Thirdly, having a similarity between the messenger and the target audience helps with the persuasiveness of the campaign (6). Again, another reason why police officers as the messenger lost persuasive ability with the students. The students aren’t similar with the police officer.
Lastly, association of a message is important. If the message is associated with positive images then the message is more persuasive. If the message is delivered at an enjoyable time then the audience is more likely to be effected since the person has enjoyable attitude or is in an enjoyable environment then s/he will associate that with the message which makes it more effective. D.A.R.E. is unsuccessful in utilizing association on multiple levels. The association between the messenger and the audience is one of fear rather than happiness. The curriculum itself is also not delivered in enjoyable way in a classroom learning about scary stories of what could happen to you if you use drugs. D.A.R.E. did not effectively utilize these four aspects of communications theory thus was far less persuasive than it could have been (2).
Critique Argument 3: Disregard for Psychological Reactance
D.A.R.E’s. struggle to effectively educated and decrease drug use in the youth can be linked to the campaign’s disregard for psychological reactance. Psychological reactance is the antagonistic reaction that occurs when a regulation or obligation that intrudes on the important core value of freedom or autonomy is imposed on a person (1). This response is common when individuals feel forced to agree with a particular opinion or behave in a specific way. According to Brehm when freedom is thought to be taken it causes a strong emotional state, called psychological reactance, which creates a desire to win back the lost autonomy (1). Much like the common understanding of reverse psychology, reactance often encourages people to advocate an opposite opinion than the encouraged belief. Consequently, reactance is a difficult barrier to persuasion and thus of major importance during public health campaigns.
Reactance can explain many historical occurrences of societal resistance. Reactance is experienced whenever a free behavior is restricted which is precisely what the D.A.R.E. campaign did for their target audience of youth with drugs. D.A.R.E. focuses on an abstinence only philosophy and makes that clear to the students. According to the research done about human’s behavior with regard to psychological reactance that is the worse approach to take. The restrictive nature of the classes and concepts takes the student’s freedom away which causes them to want to fight against what is being imposed on them. Instead of connecting with the students and teaching them that illegal drug use can be harmful and can lead to abuse, addiction, etc that actually restricts freedom D.A.R.E.’s total ignorance of psychological reactance can actually cause drugs to be more desirable and special since reactance often causes opposite behavior than the imposed teachings.
D.A.R.E. like many abstinence only campaigns ran afoul from their mission “to provide children with the information and skills they need to live drug-and-violence-free lives” (9). Their slogan to “just say no” took away the students’ freedom to think and decide for themselves and in doing so were less successful than they could have been in decreasing harmful drug abuse.
Although the D.A.R.E. campaign has been around for almost 30 years its effectiveness has been in more recently been in question. Its mission to educate students on drugs in order to reduce drug abuse is an important aim but one that is not done well. D.A.R.E. was developed by focusing on individualistic models like the Theory of Reasoned Action and missed the possibility to connect with its target audience since it didn’t use communications theory. Lastly its total disregard for psychological reactance has lead to its questionable success. However, all is not lost since there are ways to improve drug awareness education campaigns for the future.
Defense of Intervention 1: Group Level Change
In Thaler and Sunstein’s Following the Herd article there is much evidence that shows the importance of focusing on group level change rather than individual models due to the psychology of humans (8). D.A.R.E. focuses heavily on changing each individual’s thoughts on drugs and addiction rather than changing at the group level. In order to create a more successful drug awareness and education campaign a model that addresses group level thinking should be employed.
A successful way of engaging on a group level using the psychology of humans that Thaler and Sunstein discuss is much like what happened in Montana. Public officials in Montana used group mentality to “prime” or nudge people in the right direction hoping to make a more impactful change. The extensive alcohol educational campaign in Montana chose to focus and advertise the fact that there is a significant proportion of citizens of Montana that do not drink. A specific advertisement for the campaign is actually aimed at correcting the misperceived college student habits by declaring, “most (81 percent) of Montana college students have four or fewer alcoholic drinks each week” (8). This campaign strategy was also used with smoking and tobacco use in Montana and has statistically shown a statistically significant decrease in smoking. The success can be attributed to the effect the social perceptions on a group level being altered(8).
Social scientists have found through research that are ways of using human’s group level psychology in order to make them more willing to get healthy and actively engage in important health campaigns. In order for a successful drug awareness and education campaign advocates of drug awareness can easily enlist this technique of using information, peer pressure and priming in order to promote better education for an end results of less drug addiction.
Defense of Intervention 2: Communications Theory Effectively
Persuasion is a technique that can be used in many aspects of life. The advertising field has been able to very successfully find concepts to persuade consumers to believe their product or concept is the best and deserves their buy in. In order for public health campaigns and education to be successful it needs to win the approval and persuade the target audience. A successful way of doing this is by using communications theory. If done properly it is a powerful tool that makes the message more effective (6).
In order to use communications theory effectively, the person who delivers the message has to be likeable. For every target audience this can vary so research should be done in order to gauge the most successful (as in likeable) messenger. D.A.R.E.’s target audience is school-aged children. It is important to use role models for them or people they think are cool. Using celebrities in videos, assemblies and campaign rallies to bring awareness that they think the campaign is important will communicate to the students that the celebrities they look up to like D.A.R.E. so they should also.
Familiarity is another important concept to utilize. This can be done by getting more parent involvement in the classroom activities and connecting the curriculum with concepts that the students would be familiar with. Again, celebrities can be utilized to a high degree with familiarity. Fun logos and repetitive slogans can also be effective since they become familiar and recognizable (6).
Having the messenger be similar to the audience creates a more persuasive message. This is where changing the educator from a police officer to a young adult could be more effective. Having the police officer involved could still be a concept but the main deliverer of the curiculum should come from other students or young adults that the target audience can connect with and visualize themselves being.
Association is a concept that is very easy to improve on from what D.A.R.E. has been doing. If the message is associated with positive images then the message is more persuasive. Additionally, if the message is delivered at an enjoyable time then the audience is more likely to be effected. Given this aspect, fear has to be taken out of the curriculum. Positive emotions need to be portrayed by showing all the students that don’t participate in drug abuse. Similar to the concept used with The 8ighty 4our campaign. Focusing on the fun activities students can do when they aren’t doing drugs creates a more positive environment to learn and be educated in which allows the students to be more persuaded to buy into the concept of anti-drug abuse.
Defense of Intervention 3: Use Psychological Reactance to Campaign’s Advantage
D.A.R.E.’s program falls into the same trap that many public health interventions do, it assumes that people are rational and they will make a reasoned decision. With this reasoning, if a campaign teaches them what is good and what is bad then it will lead to people making the right choice. However, there has been much research done, as discussed previously, that proves that humans are in fact irrational. This predictably irrational behavior is an important concept to master in order to improve on the D.A.R.E. campaign (1). Students, just like most people, don’t react well to having their freedom and autonomy threated. D.A.R.E.’s disregard for psychological reactance causes the students to feel like their core values of freedom and autonomy are being imposed upon.
D.A.R.E. has to focus on making their message less explicit because the more explicit the messenger the greater the reactance it evokes. The more dominant a message the more reactance it evokes. This is huge for D.A.R.E. as it focuses on dominant community leaders like teachers and police officers as well as a massive use of fear, which is an extremely dominating emotion. The authoritative nature of D.A.R.E. has to be removed from the culture of a drug abuse education campaign since it will only create psychological reactance and cause the target audience to pull away from the message.
Campaigns should ALWAYS give people freedom and NEVER take it away. Opposite to all abstinence campaigns techniques the concept has to be to not tell people what to do because it takes freedom away. Covert Persuasion by Kevin Hogan discusses the importance of discovering people’s current beliefs so you can affirm them and also how the concept of never changing someone’s beliefs or attitudes is something that is successful in persuasion (5). Given this framing is an incredibly dire concept for a drug abuse campaign to employ. Framing can be used to change what people are doing without changing their beliefs or attitudes. The most promising frame to use for a drug abuse campaign is to show how drugs take the student’s freedom away not D.A.R.E. (or other drug reduction and education campaign) taking away the freedom of the students. Using this would create psychological reactance against using drugs and would work to fulfill the mission of the program.
D.A.R.E.’s focus on educating and bringing awareness about drugs to students in order to “live drug and violence free lives” is an important goal for public health advocates to fight for. The unfortunate aspect of the D.A.R.E. campaign was that it has three fatal flaws. Like many public health campaigns, D.A.R.E. overly focused their program on individualistic models. This meant that they missed an opportunity to affect their target audience on a group level, which in many instances can be more effective. As shown in Montana using group level models can be effective in bring about more behavioral change. Advocates of drug awareness can easily enlist this technique of using information, peer pressure and priming in order to be more successful in winning “drug and violence free lives” for the public. Furthermore, the D.A.R.E. program didn’t use successful persuasion techniques in their campaign. Communications theory is a powerful theory about what makes a message effective versus what makes a message ineffective. This type of persuasion is often used in advertising and has been extremely effective in that field of work and should be used in public health campaigns in order to broaden the effectiveness of public health campaigns. Properly focusing on the four aspects- likeability, familiarity, similarity and association- of communications theory will make a stronger public health campaign. The third fatal flaw of D.A.R.E.’s program was that it was build on the same platform as most abstinence only campaigns. Their slogan to “just say no” evoked strong psychological reactance by taking away the students’ freedom to think and decide for themselves and in doing so were less successful than they could have been in decreasing harmful drug abuse. Causing psychological reactance against the campaign goal can be avoid by steering clear of explicit and dominant messages. The most powerful technique for using psychological reactance could also be employed in order to have the most successful drug education campaign, framing. Framing drug use as taking away people’s freedom will not only bring awareness but the concept of human’s psychological reactance to anything that takes away autonomy. Starting a drug education campaign about giving freedom not taking it away is the most successful message of all. This would ultimately stop people from participating in drug use. This idea touches on an integral concept for any successful public health campaign, not just for drugs. In order for the campaign to make a difference in the target population the campaign must advocate to change people’s behavior, followed by their attitudes then finally people’s knowledge will broaden about the topic.
References(1) Brehm, Jack. A Theory of Psychological Reactance. New York: Academic Press, 1966.
(2) Cialdini, Robert. Weapons of Influence (pp. 1- 14). In: Cialdini, Robert ed. Inluence: The Psychology of Persuasion. New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers, 2007.
(3) Edberg, Mark. Social and Behavioral Theory in Public Health (pp. 33- 49). In: Edberg, M ed. Essentials of Health Behavior. Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett Publishers, 2007.
(4)Hanson, David. Some Serious Problems. Drug Abuse Resistance Education: The Effectiveness of D.A.R.E. Retrieved from Alcohol Abuse Prevention: http://www.alcoholfacts.org/DARE.html
(5) Hogan, Kevin. Covert Persuasion: Psychological Tactics and Tricks to Win the Game. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, (2006).
(6) Lewis, Jared. Houston Chronicle. Repetition as a Persuasive Technique. http://smallbusiness.chron.com/repetition-persuasive-strategy-26001.html
(7) Scott, A.. Pocono Report. D.A.R.E. gone in Monroe County, but illegal drugs aren't. http://www.poconorecord.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20121004/NEWS/210040330/-1/NEWS
(8) Thaler, Rochard & Unstein, Cass. Following the Herd. (pp. 53- 71). In: Thaler & Sunstein ed. Nudge. New haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008.
(9) The Official D.A.R.E. Website. http://www.dare.com/home/insidedareamerica/story40f8.asp
(10) University of Twente. Theory of Planned Behavior/ Reasoned Action. http://www.utwente.nl/cw/theorieenoverzicht/Theory%20Clusters/Health%20Communication/theory_planned_behavior.doc/