Interpersonal guilt may lead to drug use, study shows

guilt drug use

A recent study by researchers at Smith College’s School for Social Work suggests that drug use in college students may be tied into interpersonal guilt caused by familial issues and upbringing.

Lead author, Geoffrey Locke, Ph.D., once worked with people dealing with addiction in a clinical practice and “started seeing this guilt in many of [them],” he said.

The study, published in the journal Substance Abuse, surveyed 1,979 college students ages 18 to 25 from three different universities who were examined for regular use of alcohol, cannabis, and other illicit drugs. They were then compared to non-regular users of each substance.

The study was conducted during the 2008-2009 academic year and included questions aimed at assessing alcohol, cannabis, cigarette and other illicit substances. The responses to the questions were then applied to an interpersonal guilt scale ranging from “very true or strongly agree ” to “very untrue or strongly disagree.”

The measure also used four subscales of guilt, which determine the magnitude in which a test measures what it implies or claims.

The subscales included survivor guilt (acquiring good things at the expense of others), separation guilt (the idea that separating has harmful effects on relationships), omnipotent responsibility guilt (a distorted and amplified sense of responsibilities and care for others), and self-hate guilt (a general feeling of “badness,” which is possibly directly or indirectly linked to the fear of hurting others or guilt).

“The risky drinkers and the daily smokers had significantly more of this interpersonal guilt,” Locke said. “But in contrast, cannabis users had significantly less of this guilt … it was unexpected to me. My hypothesis is that cannabis helps lessen guilt. It’s not that cannabis users have less of this guilt,” but rather, “they don’t care as much about other people.” Locke noted that cannabis is associated with apathy, amotivation and lethargy.

Previous research suggests that interpersonal guilt usually develops from childhood events and familial interaction.

“Interpersonal guilt is a prosocial and altruistic emotion rooted in cognitions related to loyalty, empathy, and concern toward others,” the study stated.

On the other hand, the development of healthy guilt can arise from prior misconduct and could be foretelling of future positive choices. However, when concern for friends and family becomes overwhelming, the psychological and emotional response might be… (continue reading)