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ASU research uncovers surprising data on teenage pot use

Anyone who has children knows what kids say they will do and what they actually do can be very different. But recent research headed up by Preethika Sainam shows that teens don't just do things contrary to what they've told their parents; they do things contrary to what they've told themselves.

Sainam, an assistant professor of marketing at Arizona State University's Thunderbird School of Global Management, published “What I think I will do versus what I say I do: Mispredicting marijuana use among teenage drug users.”

The research appears in the April 2018 issue of the Journal of Business Research. It was conducted by Sainam and co-authors William P. Putsis, professor of marketing at the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina, and Gal Zauberman, professor of marketing from the Yale School of Management.

'Not my kid.' Oh, really?

“Marijuana is the most widely used drug today,” Sainam said. “According to the latest report from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) in 2013, 19.8 million people had used marijuana in the past month, up from 14.5 million in 2007.”

“Forty percent of all teenagers had tried marijuana in 2012, up from 32 percent in 2008. And yet 98 percent of parents think their teen has not used. How is this possible?" she asked. "If most kids don’t do it, as parents believe, where is this NIDA statistic coming from?”

Using a federally-funded dataset that Putsis had used for another project, the three marketing professors looked at factors that affect why teenagers wrongly predict their future use of marijuana — what traditional marketing research considers “consumer decision-making analysis.”

Sainam believes she and her colleagues are the first to study the factors that affect misprediction of future drug use with survey data and not experimental methods.

“Previous research only looked at what affected marijuana use," Sainam said. "We moved actual usage from being an independent variable to being a dependent variable, then looked at the factors that affected whether or not the teen accurately predicted his or her marijuana use.”

Experience counts … against you

Sainam and her colleagues discovered that many variables in a teen’s environment influence marijuana use, but also revealed that those same factors affect kids’ ability to correctly predict future use.

“A teenager’s situation — such as the number of their friends who use marijuana, or the teen’s attitude about marijuana use, or how accessible it is to them — not only influences whether they have or haven’t used it in the past,” she said, “but also influences their ability to accurately predict their future use.”

And, almost counterintuitively, they discovered past use of marijuana was a liability in predicting the future.

“Normally, the more you do something, the more of an expert you become and the better you are able to predict your future behavior,” Sainam said of traditional consumer trends. “But instead, we found that the more someone used marijuana, the more likely they were to underpredict future use. In other words, the more you have used marijuana in the past, the more you say you’re not going to use it, and the more likely you are to be wrong.”

But what about those teens who had never tried marijuana before?

“If you follow the concept of ‘experience is a liability,’ then inexperience is an asset. We found those who reported they had never tried marijuana before were much more accurate in predicting they would continue to not use it," she said. “Further, we find that the story changes when we consider the interaction variables of these same factors with past use. So merely considering the main effects of the situation and attitudes could be misleading.”

What does this all mean?

“Being a parent myself, I think this research shows areas in which both parents and policymakers need to pay attention to the dynamics that affect teen use of marijuana, and how to influence that,” Sainam said.

“Things like learning about the elements that affect teenage drug use through conversations with your kid is a good starting point," she said, adding that policymakers also need to target different public service announcements to different segments, such as low-usage or high-usage individuals, to ensure the right message reaches the right ears.

Knowing how teens have mispredicted their drug use will guide their public service announcement development and distribution.

Download a copy of the professors' research

Written by By Tim Weaver, Thunderbird Executive Education