Brain and Body

Study Links Addiction to a Low Regard for Others

April 6, 2016 | Kelly Tatera

Drunk Driving
Photo credit: James Palinsad/flickr (CC by SA 2.0)

The researchers say this “poor awareness” of others is part of the illness that needs to be treated.

In a study of adolescents with severe alcohol and other drug problems, developmental psychologist Maria Pagano, an associate professor of psychiatry at the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, found that the addicts had a low regard for other people, which was indicated by higher rates of certain behaviors like driving drunk, having unprotected sex with a history of sexually transmitted disease, and being less likely to volunteer their time to help others — an activity she says has been shown to help adult alcoholics maintain sobriety.

Pagano said she faced difficulties while designing the study since adolescents tend to be self-centered by nature, but she was convinced that she would find that addiction was tied to an even lower regard for others “above and beyond the ego-centric stage of adolescence,” according to the press release.

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The study involved 585 adolescents from high schools in Ohio as well as the largest residential treatment facility. For every one young addict, there were two adolescents in the study who described little or no drug or alcohol use. Pagano identified several behaviors to measure an individual’s awareness for others, like the above-mentioned drunk driving and engaging in unprotected sex while knowingly having an STD.

The results showed a dose-response relationship between substance use severity and a regard for others — meaning the more severe the addiction, the more likely an adolescent was to engage in the low-regard behaviors.

Most of the adolescents (88 percent) didn’t use alcohol or drugs at the time of their last sexual intercourse, which was unprotected among 55 percent of the sample. Also, 26 percent of the youths had a history of driving under the influence or DUI. The dose-response relationship occurred between the severity of the alcohol or other drug use and an increased likelihood of having unprotected sex or getting a DUI.

Pagano says that alcoholics and drug addicts may be hindered by a lower awareness of how their actions impact others: "The addict is like a tornado running through the lives of others," she says. "This is part of the illness.”

SEE ALSO: Almost Everything We Know About Addiction is Wrong – Here’s Why

Even in recovery, Pagano says there is little indication that addicts truly understand how their actions impact those around them, and that helping young people get out of that “self-centeredness” is critical to help them through the recovery process. She notes that service to others is a big step in the 12-step Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous programs.

Previous work with adult addicts has shown that, amazingly, service to others cuts the risk of relapse in half and also cuts the risk of arrest in half. Pagano’s work suggests that addiction could be prevented or treated through strengthening volunteerism, the press release states.

"People must understand that the illness has a low awareness of others component that must be addressed," she said.

Pagano will continue her research by following treated addicts over a one-year period and monitoring their commitment to service, enabling her to see whether volunteerism truly helps reduce the risky behaviors associated with addiction.

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