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A study by researchers from the MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit suggests that young people with 'good' - traditional or non-materialistic - values are just as likely to go on to regularly smoke, drink and take drugs as their more materialistic peers.

Do 'good' values lead to 'good' health behaviours? Links between young people's values and their later substance use.

posted on: Mar 30, 2010

A study by researchers from the MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit suggests that young people with ‘good' - traditional or non-materialistic - values are just as likely to go on to regularly smoke, drink and take drugs as their more materialistic peers.

 

Promoting 'good values' is a central tenant of various religious, educational, social and political movements. The values they promote are typically traditional, such as obedience, respect or a strong work ethic. Other pro-equality and community values are also promoted by many organisations. What exactly counts as ‘good' values is a contentious issue, and the researchers maintain an impartial stance. In this study they simply mean: values that have been promoted by various organizations as leading to positive health or health behaviors.

 

The study, funded by the UK Medical Research Council and conducted with nearly 1,300 teenagers suggests that ‘good' values are not that good at protecting against later substance use. It questioned 15-year olds in the West of Scotland in 1999 about their values and followed them until early adulthood (age 18/19). On both occasions they were asked about substance use - regular smoking, drinking (every few days) and weekly drug use, as well as important social background factors such as religion, gender and social class.

 

The results showed that:

  • At age 15 certain values were linked to regular substance use.
  • Unsurprisingly young people with anti-authority values had higher rates of regular substance use, even accounting for social background.
  • However, those who held some supposedly ‘good' values had higher rates of substance use. For example 15-year olds holding traditional sex-role values were nearly 20% more likely to regularly smoke and over 50% more likely to regularly drink or take drugs every week.
  • Some supposedly ‘bad' values such as individualism were related to lower substance use.
  • Many, so called ‘good', values were either not related, or only weakly related to later substance use, suggesting they are not particularly strong influences in the longer term.

 

While these results may challenge those with a more traditional perspective, the researchers are more optimistic. Even though values may not matter that much for substance use, they might be related to other outcomes such as mental health, or be important motivators in people's lives.

 

Acknowledging this, lead investigator Robert Young , based at the MRC Social and Public Health Sciences Unit in Glasgow said:

Most people intuitively consider certain values such as benevolence and equality to be of greater ethical and social ‘worth' than others and these values are to be encouraged. We don't want to discourage innovative approaches to improving young people's health, but expecting values education to have a major impact on every type of health behaviour is probably unrealistic'.

 

And further:

It's plausible that some values may be good for certain outcomes, but bad for others. For example having a good work ethic might be good for your career, but if you have to smoke, drink or take drugs to cope with the pressure of a heavy workload then it's a mixed blessing. The real task is to find out which values best protect against each specific risk'.

 

The findings are published in BMC Public Health