Substance abuse is not a new problem the human society faces as drugs have been used for centuries. However, the scale of the problem is quite alarming these days. For instance, it was estimated in 2012 that almost 10% of the population (23.9 million teenagers and adults) used illicit drugs (Sue, Sue, Sue, & Sue, 2015). Illicit drugs include cocaine, cannabis, illegally obtained prescription medications. At that, almost 9% of the US population had a substance-abuse disorder in 2012.
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People suffering from substance-abuse disorders name different reasons for using and starting to use drugs. Researchers have identified two major factors affecting drug-taking behaviors. These are biological and environmental influences. Some people have a genetic predisposition and are prone to developing addictions, while others are heavily influenced by the environment. However, it is clear that both types of factors interact and shape people’s behavior. This paper examines different ways biological and environment influences interact and affect drug-taking behavior.
Genes Moderating Environmental Effects
First, it is necessary to note that the ongoing research on the matter has not led to definite answers, and it is still quite unclear which factors are central. However, it is possible to identify three ways biology and environment interact affecting people’s drug-taking behavior. One of these types of interaction is associated with the moderation of environmental influences.
It has been acknowledged that some genes may moderate environmental factors. For instance, the monoamine oxidase-A gene is associated with people’s significant resistance to violence and antisocial behavior (Byrd & Manuck, 2014). In simple terms, people having such genes are likely to avoid using drugs even when they can be exposed to some environmental influences. These individuals do not develop substance-abuse disorders, even if they try some substances. They are also less likely to take drugs in the first place. Interestingly, Byrd and Manuck (2014) claim that the association between the gene and environmental influences is less evident in females.
Biological Factors Enhancing the Effects of the Environment
The weak association between MAOA gene and more prosocial behaviors in females can be explained by biological influences. It has been acknowledged that females are less resistant and are more likely to develop addictions as compared to males (Fattore, Melis, Fadda, & Fratta, 2014). This peculiarity is often associated with hormones produced in male and female bodies. Fattore et al. (2014) state that females are specifically prone to abusing prescribed drugs that are related to treating depression and other psychological issues. At that, males are still more likely to try drugs in their search for new experiences or pleasure (Sue et al., 2015). Therefore, it is possible to emphasize that males and females are prone to substance use, but the factors affecting their behaviors differ.
Inheritance is another factor associated with increased vulnerability to substance use and abuse. Bardo, Neisewander, and Kelly (2013) state that extensive research on the matter shows that people inherit psychological and biological traits that enhance the chances of their using drugs. People’s sensitivity can often be inherited. In simple terms, people who have certain inherited genes may be unable to resist the craving for drugs. In other cases, people inherit some psychological traits associated with enhanced desire or even need to have new experiences or gain pleasure. Nevertheless, Bardo et al. (2013) also mention that environmental influences can moderate biological factors (such as inherited predisposition, the impact of different hormones, and so on).
Some psychological traits are closely related to people’s drug-taking behaviors. For instance, impulsivity is one of these characteristic features (Sue et al., 2015). Bardo et al. (2013) note that the association between impulsivity and risky behaviors is evident at an early age. It is acknowledged that adolescents having this feature are more likely to try drugs and develop substance abuse.
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Another individual difference is sensation seeking. Some people tend to have an increased need to seek new experiences, which often leads to the use of drugs. Clearly, the combination of these individual features (and other traits associated with risky behaviors) increases the risk of developing substance-abuse disorders. The effects of these features are specifically apparent in adolescence.
It has been acknowledged that environmental influences are often central to people’s drug-taking behaviors (Bardo et al., 2013). When discussing environmental factors affecting people’s drug-taking behaviors, it is necessary to take into account the period when people are more likely to start using or abusing drugs. It is found that drug addictions are developed, and first drug-taking experiences occur in adolescence and early adulthood (Sue et al., 2015). These are also the periods when people form identities, seek their place in society, and start making numerous decisions (that are often serious and life-changing). Hence, such factors as peer pressure, socioeconomic status, employment status, family issues, and so on should be considered.
One of the most influential factors is peer pressure, as it often becomes the reason for trying and also abusing drugs (Sue et al., 2015). Peer pressure can affect both males and females. However, in males, it is often associated with becoming a part of a group. For example, a male teenager may be a member of a gang where drug use is common. Whereas, females often start using drugs to handle issues and treat their depression (Sue et al., 2015). Therefore, males use drugs to show their commitment to a group’s values and their loyalty while females start using drugs in order to try to escape from negative feelings when they are not accepted or understood within a group.
Which Factors Are More Influential?
As has been mentioned above, it is still unclear which factors, environmental or biological, are more influential when shaping people’s drug-taking behaviors. For instance, even studies exploring drug behaviors in twins have not provided a clear answer to this question (Bardo et al., 2013). Many researchers argue that environmental factors are central to shaping people’s behavior. Thus, twins with similar genes and inherited traits often develop differently when exposed to different environments. Siblings also have a significant influence on each other’s drug-taking behavior. Altonji, Cattan, and Ware (2017) found that younger siblings often start using drugs if their older siblings are substance users or abusers. Importantly, the association between sibling’s behaviors is strong in males, while females are less prone to such influences.
Nevertheless, it is necessary to note that these studies have numerous limitations. They cannot be regarded as the illustration of environmental factors dominance. First, not all researchers take into account a complete set of genes and inherited traits when studying behaviors and environments of twins and siblings. Therefore, it is often unclear whether the participants have similar biological traits. Environments are also rather different, as numerous factors are usually combined.
The Most Appropriate Approach
The analysis of the existing evidence on the matter shows that the most appropriate way to analyze biological and environmental influences on people’s drug-taking behaviors is the analysis of both types of factors. The combination of environmental and biological influences has different impacts on individuals. For example, an impulsive person is at a higher risk of trying drugs. However, the death or suffering of a family member or a close one related to the use of substances can make the individual resistant. At the same time, high levels of MAOA genes may prevent a person from using drugs even if the individual is under considerable pressure from peers.
In conclusion, it is necessary to note that researchers have identified many ways biological and environmental influences interact and affect people’s drug-taking behaviors. In some cases, biological factors enhance environmental influences. Sometimes biological factors moderate the effects of environmental influences and prevent people from using drugs or developing substance-abuse disorders. However, in the majority of cases, these factors and influences are intermingled, and it is hard or even impossible to identify central or less important factors leading to substance use and abuse.
Therefore, it is crucial to pay attention to all (or as many as possible) factors affecting people’s drug-taking behaviors. Family history, traits of characters, particular genes, gender, socioeconomic status, relationships with peers, and the like should be taken into account. This comprehensive approach may help in identifying paradigms and even patterns associated with the use of drugs. As a result, researchers will develop strategies to help people (especially adolescents) avoid using and abusing any substance.
Altonji, J., Cattan, S., & Ware, I. (2017). Identifying sibling influence on teenage substance use. Journal of Human Resources, 52(1), 1-47.
Bardo, M., Neisewander, J., & Kelly, T. (2013). Individual differences and social influences on the neurobehavioral pharmacology of abused drugs. Pharmacological Reviews, 65(1), 255-290.
Byrd, A., & Manuck, S. (2014). MAOA, Childhood maltreatment, and antisocial behavior: Meta-analysis of a gene-environment interaction. Biological Psychiatry, 75(1), 9-17.
Fattore, L., Melis, M., Fadda, P., & Fratta, W. (2014). Sex differences in addictive disorders. Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology, 35(3), 272-284.
Sue, D., Sue, D. W., Sue, S., & Sue, D.M. (2015). Understanding abnormal behavior. Stamford, CT: Cengage Learning.