What we would expect is often far away from what really happens.

There’s a famous campaign in the United States, an anti-drug campaign, called the Just Say No campaign, pioneered at the University of Houston by Professor Richard Evans. The campaign was started in the early 1980s by Nancy Reagan, and the idea was very simple.

Drug rates were increasing, particularly among kids, so public service announcements came out talking about the dangers of drugs, and trying to encourage people not to do them. Now this seems like a pretty simple idea,
right? We wanna encourage kids not to do drugs.

The ads had a variety of real life situations, where kids might be asked to do drugs. A neighbor, for example might say “hey, do you wanna do drugs?”… or “hey, the kids at school are doing drugs. Do you wanna try them?”.

And the idea was by learning to say no, by seeing other kids say no, people would be more likely to say no themselves.

More recently, some researchers have analyzed some data. Not only of the “just say no campaign”, but also of a more recent campaign against drugs.

And they looked at whether these campaigns were effective. “Did children who saw the anti-drug ads, were they less likely to take drugs? “.

You might expect the answer would be yes. That showing kids anti-drug ads, telling them just to say no, would decrease drug use.

Unfortunately that didn’t happen. It didn’t lead to decreased drug use. In fact, it didn’t even lead to no change in drug use. It actually had a paradoxical effect. Kids who saw more anti-drug ads were later more likely to be reported using drugs.

A 2009 analysis of 20 controlled studies on enrollment in one of the most popular “Just Say No” programs, calle DARE, showed no effect on drug use. Two studies suggested that enrollees in DARE-like programs were actually more likely to use alcohol and cigarettes.

Now this might come as a big surprise. The ads were particularly designed
to get people not to use drugs.

So why did it actually have a perverse effect?

Well, think about it for a moment. You’re a kid, you’re sitting at home, you’ve never thought about trying drugs before. And then an ad comes on television and says, hey little boy or girl, there is something called drugs. Well, if you’ve never heard of drugs before, the ad just told you that they exist. And then the ad proceeds to show other people using drugs. They say, hey, the kids at school are using drugs or the cool kids are using drugs,
but you shouldn’t. And you’re sitting there, going, well, if the cool kids are using them, maybe I should check them out as well. While telling people not to use drugs, the ads were simultaneously saying, other people are doing it.

And whenever we tell people that other people are doing something (social influence), they’re gonna be more likely to do it themselves.