Teens who believe that life comprises a set of essentially random events over which they have no control are at greater risk of taking up smoking or drinking at hazardous levels.
That’s the message arising from research done by scientists led by epidemiologist Glenda Lassi from the UK’s University of Bristol.
To make their finding, the researchers used data collected in trove known as the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC). The study focusses on the lives of of children born in a particular area of southwest England between 1 April 1991 and 31 December 1992.
After noting a small number of drop-outs and excluding the second-born child in twins, Lassi and colleagues were left with a cohort of 13,775.
The object of the research was to identify the worldview of each of the children at age 16, and then record the use (if any) of tobacco and alcohol at ages 17 and 21.
At issue was what the scientists termed the “locus of control” (LoC) of each individual – essentially how they viewed the way in which they interacted with the world. Those with an “external” LoC felt they had little or no influence in what happened to them in life. Essentially, they believed that their futures were determined either by chance or the action of others.
Those with an “internal” LoC, by contrast, believed that they were in control of their own lives, and their futures were determined, in substantial degree, by their own decision-making.
The difference in smoking rates between the two mindsets was stark.
“In this study, we found strong evidence that a more external LoC at age 16 was associated with higher odds of being at least a weekly smoker and being nicotine dependent at age 17 and age 21,” the researchers write in the journal Royal Society Open Science.
At age 17, the results were similar for hazardous alcohol use, but not by 21.
Lassi and colleagues suggest that discovering the LoC settings for individual teenagers could provide a lever for drug and alcohol harm minimisation strategies.
External control loci, they add, have also been linked to other deleterious conditions, including depression and anxiety. Here, too, a similar therapeutic target beckons.
“By targeting eventual distorted selectivity in perceiving and elaborating information of one’s experiences and preferences, LoC orientation could be steered towards a perception of control,” the authors write.
Andrew Masterson is a former editor of Cosmos.
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