, Volume 235, Issue 4, pp 935–945 | Cite as

Considering the context: social factors in responses to drugs in humans

  • Harriet de Wit
  • Michael Sayette



Drugs are typically used in social settings. Here, we consider two factors that may contribute to this observation: (i) the presence of other people may enhance the positive mood effects of a drug, and conversely, (ii) drugs may enhance the value of social stimuli.


We review evidence from controlled laboratory studies with human volunteers, which investigated either of these interactions between social factors and responses to drugs. We examine the bidirectional effects of social stimuli and single doses of alcohol, stimulants, opioids, and cannabis.


All four classes of drugs interact with social contexts, but the nature of these interactions varies across drugs, and depends on whether the context is positive or negative.


Alcohol and stimulant drugs enhance the attractiveness of social stimuli and the desire to socialize, and social contexts, in turn, enhance these drugs’ effects. In contrast, opioids and cannabis have subtler effects on social interactions and their effects are less influenced by the presence of others. Overall, there is stronger evidence that drugs enhance positive social contexts than that they dampen the negativity of unpleasant social settings. Controlled research is needed to understand the interactions between drugs of abuse and social contexts, to model and understand the determinants of drug use outside the laboratory.


Social Context Alcohol Stimulant Opioid Cannabis Human 



Preparation of this manuscript was supported by grants from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (DA02812 and DA037011) and from the National Cancer Institute (R01 CA18477). Elisa Pabon, Kasey Van Hedger, Scott Schepers, and Tristen Inagaki provided comments on the manuscript.


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© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral NeuroscienceUniversity of ChicagoChicagoUSA
  2. 2.Departments of Psychology and PsychiatryUniversity of PittsburghPittsburghUSA

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