THE PRESENT STUDY was a pilot examination of the determinants of Ecstasy use among a sample of young people. The aim was to examine systematic differences in attitudes and beliefs of young people with varying degrees of experience with the drug. It was hoped that these differences might increase understanding and suggest ways of discouraging unsafe use of the drug.
The major theoretical framework which guided the factors we measured was the Theory of Planned Behaviour (T.P.B.) (Ajzen, 1988, 1991). This is a theory of how the influences upon an individual determine that individuals decision to follow a particular health related behaviour.
According to the T.P.B. , individuals are likely to follow a particular health action if they believe that the behaviour will lead to particular outcomes which they value, that people whose views they value think they should carry out the behaviour, and if they feel that the action is easily under their volitional control.
Questionnaires were distributed by hand to a diverse sample of students in the North of England. There were a total of 186 usable questionnaires returned. Respondants ranged between 19 and 25 years of age. There were 73 men and 108 women (5 gender not known). Of these, a total of 86 were non-users, 45 light users (1 to 15 tablets of Ecstasy taken) and 51 were heavy users (more than 15 tablets taken).
We initially looked at frequency of use. Of the light users, most had taken Ecstasy on special occasions. Heavy users were more likely to respond that they took Ecstasy at regular intervals (once or twice a month being the most frequent responses). Users were significantly more likely to be users of drugs such as marijuana, hallucinogens, and amphetamines. They were also more likely to smoke but were less likely to drink alcohol. The reasons for taking Ecstasy were very uniform – enjoyment, and most was taken at clubs on weekends or special occasions with either a small or large group of friends. These data very much support other studies suggesting a fairly typical sample of Ecstasy users and non-users.
We looked at average intention to use Ecstasy split by the 3 groups; non-user, light user and heavy user. Only those from the heavy user group had a strong intention to use Ecstasy again in the future. In addition, we looked at which components of the T.P.B. were significant predictors of intention to use Ecstasy in the future. Regression analysis showed that; attitudes, subjective norms, and perceived behavioural control were all significant predictors (ie. could all be taken as indicative of intention to use), although attitudes were the best single predictor (ie. a persons attitude towards the drug was most indicative of whether they would take it again or not).
As the purpose of the study was to investigate the possibility of generating health literature designed to inform the general public of the risks of Ecstasy use,the next set of analyses examined which outcome, normative and control beliefs distinguished individuals who were heavy, light or non-users.
If we look at beliefs it is clear that there are major differences in the perceived likelihood of various outcomes between the differing user groups. In general these were all in the expected direction with positive outcomes being perceived to be more likely by the heavier users and vice versa for the negative outcomes. There were also a smaller number of differences in the way outcomes were evaluated. In particular, non-users were more likely to evaluate more negatively the outcomes of feeling lethargic, having mood swings, more frequent Ecstasy use, and feeling run down. Interestingly, even the heavy users had only moderately positive overall attitudes towards Ecstasy use.
Turning to normative beliefs, fewer differences are apparent. Non-users were more likely to perceive a negative pressure to use Ecstasy from friends, their partner, and people in general. All groups perceived strong negative pressure from parents and health professionals not to use Ecstasy but non-users were more likely to wish to comply with pressure from parents.
Finally, beliefs also control a number of differences. Both light and heavy users, compared to non-users, were more likely to perceive that the price of Ecstasy, being with Ecstasy users, being offered Ecstasy, going dancing and the availability of Ecstasy would facilitate Ecstasy use. They also experienced each of these things more frequently. Heavy users were also likely to perceive that they had less control over Ecstasy use that non-users and light users.
The T.P.B. provided good predictions of intentions to use Ecstasy (%56 percent of variability) in the future, although the relationships of such intentions to actual behaviour remains to be explored. Overall attitudes were the best single predictor with more positive attitudes being associated with stronger intentions to use. Attitudes appeared to be based upon beliefs about the outcomes of Ecstasy use with heavy users more likely to believe that Ecstasy use would lead to positive outcomes and less likely to lead to negative outcomes. Heavy users also perceived more pressure from others to use Ecstasy and perceived themselves to have less control over its future use. All these factors might be addressed in designing literature to be used to change individuals attitudes and behavior toward Ecstasy use.
We are now moving to carry out further studies. These include larger prospective studies of the determinants of Ecstasy use (Meilman et al., 1990), and in-depth interviews with individuals about their experiences with, and determinants of, their Ecstasy use. We also plan to conduct intervention studies designed to change Ecstasy use patterns in student samples through the use of persuasive materials.
One of us (Kellie Sherlock), also plans to study the role of young women in drug-taking circles and any health-related problems that they might have.
Ajzen, I. (1988). Attitudes, personality and behavior. Milton Keynes: Open University Press.
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Meilman, P.W., Gaylor, M.S., Turco, J.H., and Stone, J.E. (1990). Drug use among college undergraduates: Current use and 10 year trends. International Journal of the Addictions, 25, 1025-1036.