Motivation and emotion/Book/2016/Illicit drug taking at music festivals

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Illicit drug taking at music festivals:
What motivates young people to take illicit drugs at music festivals?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Figure 1. Music festivals create a fun and carefree environment

The focus of this chapter is understanding what is unique about the music festival environment that motivates illicit drug use in young people. Current evidence suggests that an interplay between internal thought processes and external environmental influences come together to produce a coercive motivational force. Thought processes include social facilitation and the mindset that "everyone is doing it", whilst environmental influences can include peer pressure and expressing one's new identity. Taken together, music festivals create this unique "culture of consumption", where the stereotype of the typical drug user is forgotten and replaced with something far more appealing.

Learning outcomes

After reading this chapter, the following learning outcomes will have been addressed:

  1. Accurately define what illicit drugs are, and some knowledge of their prevalence.
  2. Understand the distinction between general illicit drug use and illicit drug use at music festivals.
  3. Apply motivational theory to explain why young people use illicit drugs at music festivals.

What are illicit drugs?[edit | edit source]

The term illicit drug is an umbrella term often used when referring to a substance found in one of these three subcategories:

Table 1.

Overview of Main Illicit Drug Types

Illegal Drugs Illegal drugs are any kind of substance that is prohibited from being manufactured, sold or possessed anywhere in Australia.

Examples include: Cannabis, Methamphetamine (Ice), Cocaine, Heroin, Ecstasy and Methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA)

Pharmaceutical Drugs Any drug that is available from a pharmacy with a valid prescription and may be subject to misuse or harm if taken incorrectly.

Examples include: Opioid based pain relief, Benzodiazepines and Codeine

Other Psychoactive Drugs Any drug, legal or illegal that is being used in a potentially harmful way or not for its intended purpose.

Examples include: Keva, Synthetic Cannabis, Petrol and Paint

Source: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare Household Report (2013)

Epidemiology[edit | edit source]

Figure 2. Young people are increasingly mixing pharmaceutical drugs with other illicit substances.

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) states that approximately eight million (42%) of Australians have taken an illicit drug at some point in their lives, and this figure has remained stable over the last decade. Of this percentage, people aged between 20 to 29 were most likely to have used illicit drugs over the past 12 months, making them the most active consumer of illicit drugs in Australia. Not surprisingly, people in that same age bracket are also those most likely to attend Australian music festivals (Lim, Hellard, Hocking & Aitken, 2008). The average age of initial drug use is 16.3 years, with the most frequently reported drug taken being Cannabis, followed by Ecstasy and Cocaine. Again, these are the three most commonly reported drugs at Australian music festivals (Lim et al., 2010).

Increase in pharmaceutical drug use[edit | edit source]

The 2013 AIHW household survey saw no increase the in prevalence of traditional illicit drugs (such as Cannabis, Ecstasy etc) however, the survey did see a small yet significant increase in misuse of pharmaceutical drugs. Pharmaceutical drug misuse rose from 4.2% to 4.7% from 2010 - 2013 which was the most significant increase since 2001. The survey found that individuals aged between 18 and 39 were most likely to misuse pharmaceutical drugs, often by mixing them with other illicit substances (polydrug use). Polydrug use significantly increases the risk of illicit drug related harm, including increased levels of intoxication and greater likelihood of overdose (Kelly, Wells, Pawson, LeClair & Parsons, 2014).

Sampling methods[edit | edit source]

Most research literature to date has used random convenience sampling to gather statistical information on illicit drug use at music festivals. However, this sampling methods is effected by response bias which creates a misrepresentative sample. To combat this, a new data collection technique has been adopted - wastewater analysis. Lai et al. (2013) were the first to use quantitative wastewater analysis to measure illicit drug use at a music festival. This technique boasts several advantages over traditional methods, including being non-invasive, anonymous and comparatively more affordable. Lai et al. (2013) found that the most commonly used substance at that music festival was cannabis, followed by MDMA, methamphetamine and cocaine. When these findings were compared with wastewater analysis samples from the general population, all four drugs were significantly more prevalent in the music festival sample, especially MDMA which was almost nonexistent in the general population sample.

A unique drug culture[edit | edit source]

Figure 3. Music festivals are usually in summer, with advertisements often depicting young people enjoying the weather and atmosphere

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Popularity and leisure[edit | edit source]

When making the distinction between individuals who use illicit drugs generally versus individuals who use illicit drugs at music festivals, it is important to understand what is unique about music festivals that makes them such an appealing illicit drug taking environment. There are 17 mainstream music festivals that occur annually in Australia, with 25% of the population attending at least one of these each year (ABS, 2009). Such popular festivals include Big Day Out, Falls Festival, Splendour in the Grass and many more. Music festivals usually occur in summer or over the holiday period, meaning they often mirror the holiday season feelings of relaxation and enjoyment. Corporate sponsorship pays for the majority of music festival advertising, which often depicts diverse groups of young people having a fun and enjoyable time (Wilson, Bryant, Holt & Treloar, 2010). However, advertising alone cannot account for the exponential increase in music festival popularity over the past 15 years, rather, music festival popularity is indicative of the growing commodification of young people's leisure time (Wilson et al., 2010). With many young people working sporadic hours and having less free time, music festivals have added appeal, because they are planned months in advance and only run for a set amount of time. It seems that young people prefer to save their time and money and spend it on one large event rather than several local events (Wilson et al., 2010).

Types of music[edit | edit source]

The type of music played is also a factor in creating a unique illicit drug taking environment. Lim, Hellard, Hocking and Aitken (2008) conducted a study examining the association between illicit drug use and music preference, hypothesising that dance, rave and house genres of music would be highly associated with illicit drug use. The results showed that of the 939 participants, 724 (77%) used illicit drugs at music festivals in the past. Furthermore, participants who preferenced dance and house music were more than 40% likely to have used illicit drugs at music festivals compared to those who preferenced pop music (Lim et al., 2008). The authors suggest that the reason for this correlation is because "party drugs" became popularised by underground music raves which is where dance/house music evolved from. Additionally, Winstock and Stewart (2001) found that dance/house music videos often portray images of heavy drug use, suggesting to the viewer that this type of behaviour is associated with listening to these types of music. Case study research has also revealed that young people perceive dance/house to be more mentally and physically stimulating and that taking illicit drugs enhances the overall listening experience (Winstock & Stewart, 2001).

Case study[edit | edit source]

The case study below will be used to exemplify how motivational theories can explain illicit drug taking in young people:

Sarah's Story

Sarah just moved from Canberra to Melbourne to start studying at University. She broke up with her boyfriend before moving and is feeling very down about it, but her 20th birthday is coming up and a few of her new friends from Melbourne are taking her to a music festival to celebrate! Sarah has never been to a music festival before, but all her friends have and they're always talking about how much fun they are. One week before the festival, her best friend Kelly asks her if she wants some MDMA to take at the festival. Kelly says that she is getting some off her older brother's friend, and assures her that it’s safe and legitimate. Sarah is hesitant, she hasn't taken many drugs before, but she does smoke Cannabis with her friends occasionally. Sensing her hesitation, Kelly explains to Sarah that it’s normal to take drugs at a music festival, and that she won't have as much fun if she doesn't take them.

Sarah hasn't made many new friends in Melbourne and doesn't want to offend Kelly by not accepting her offer. After all, Kelly said that the drugs were safe, and that everyone at the festival would be using them.

On the day of the festival, Sarah decides that she is sick of feeling down about her ex-boyfriend, and decides that its time for an attitude overhaul. She is excited about the music festival, and decides that this is the perfect time to try something new and have a good time with her friends.

Sarah decides to accept Kelly's offer and takes the MDMA just before they enter the music festival.

Motivational theories[edit | edit source]

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Normalisation thesis[edit | edit source]

The normalisation thesis posits that young people may be more motivated to take illicit drugs because they believe it to be considered socially acceptable. Similar to attitude changes regarding alcohol, many young people now perceive illicit drug use as something that is commonplace in a variety of environments, one being music festivals (Duff, 2005). Parker, Aldridge and Measham (1998) first pioneered research looking into the normalisation of illicit drug taking amongst young people in Britain. In 2002, the researchers conducted a review of the findings and concluded that the framework of normalisation consists of four components, including:

  1. Availability and accessibility of illicit drugs
  2. Age of first use and lifetime prevalence
  3. Rates of recent and regular illicit drug use
  4. Social accommodation of illicit drug use (Parker et al., 2002: as cited in Wilson, Bryant, Holt & Treloar, 2010).
Figure 4 . Young people at music festivals do not consider themselves to be stereotypical drug users

Wilson et al. (2010) aimed to empirically test the normalisation framework put forward by Parker et al. (2002) at the annual Sydney music festival Big Day Out.The results revealed that 68.1% of the 1588 participants believed that Cannabis and Ecstasy would be "very easy" to obtain, thus supporting the component of availability and accessibility. Furthermore, social and cultural accommodation of illicit drugs was also analysed, with festival attendees reporting far more liberal attitudes towards illicit drug taking compared to similar age cohorts from the general population (Wilson, 2010). Rather than viewing illicit drug taking as a deviant and criminal activity, young people have created a very different prototype of the typical drug user - an individual who uses illicit drugs on a recreational basis, whilst still being a contributing member of society. Indeed, demographic data from Wilson et al (2010) shows that the majority of festival attendees were employed, and many were either studying or had already obtained a university degree.

Whilst the normalisation thesis alludes to the change in social acceptability and perceived normality of illicit drug usage, there are methodological issues when applying it as a theory of motivation. The most significant issue is that the thesis may be explaining a consequence of increasing illicit drug use, rather than a cause of illicit drug use (Duff, 2005). Such methodological issues need to be addressed with further empirical research in this area.

The false consensus effect[edit | edit source]

The false consensus effect is a phenomenon that supports the normalisation thesis. First theorised by Ross, Greene and House (1977, as cited in Wolfson, 2000) the effect is described as the tendency for people to over assume the extent to which other people share their attitudes and behaviours (Wolfson, 2000). Evidence supporting this effect was found when college students were asked to estimate the prevalence of drug taking amongst the student population. The results revealed that students who used illicit drugs were more likely to believe that other students also used illicit drugs to the same extent (Wolfson, 2000). The authors believe that this misinterpretation is a result of students trying to cognitively justify their past and future illicit drug use (Wolfson, 2000).

Question mark2 Case Study Link
  • Sarah's friends always talk about their experience using illicit drugs at music festivals. She believes that her friends usually make good decisions, so she assumes that that kind of behaviour must be acceptable at music festivals (Normalisation Thesis). Sarah then assumes that because her friends are doing it, that must mean that everyone who attends music festivals must take illicit drugs (False consensus effect).

Theory of planned behaviour[edit | edit source]

The theory of planned behaviour (TPB) is commonly used to explain the motivation behind many health related behaviours. First proposed by Ajzen (1991) the theory states that behaviour is a result of intentions, and that intentions are a product of three constructs - attitude, subjective norms and perceived behavioural control. The table below demonstrates how the TPB can explain the factors that motivate young people to use illicit drugs at music festivals:

Table 2.

Application of Theory of Planned Behaviour Principles to Illicit Drug Taking

Attitude Young people have a favourable attitude towards illicit drug taking, meaning that the perceived benefit of using an illicit substance outweighs any perceived negative consequences.
Subjective Norms Young people believe that their peers want them to use illicit drugs at a music festival, and that they need to comply with these wishes in order to avoid social exclusion.
Perceived behavioural control Young people believe they have the ability to obtain and correctly use illicit drugs. They also do not believe that they have the ability to refuse or ignore any social pressure they might experience in relation to using illicit drugs at a music festival (Petraitis, Flay and Miller, 1995).

Based on the explanations used above, the TPB highlights how expectations can be used as motivation to participate in a certain behaviour (McMillan & Conner, 2003). Young people have the expectation that using illicit drugs at a music festival will result in a more enjoyable experience, and they also expect that those around them will support or encourage this behaviour. Furthermore, young people expect that obtaining drugs will be easy and safe and also expect their refusal self-efficacy to be low (Petraitis, Flay and Miller, 1995). However, the TPB is not able to explain all the variables that may motivate illicit drug usage. As highlighted by Umeh and Patel (2004) the TPB model does not account for the role of past behaviour in predicting future illicit drug use. An individual may be more motivated to take illicit drugs at a music festival if such behaviour has led to positive outcomes in the past, for example, using drugs at a previous music festival and having a really enjoyable time (Umeh & Patel, 2004).

Internal versus external rewards[edit | edit source]

The TPB suggests that expectations can motivate young people to use illicit drugs at music festivals. Nemeth, Kuntsche, Urban, Farkas and Demetrovics (2011) take this idea one step further, arguing that different expectations fit into one of two categories: internal or external rewards. Internal rewards are viewed as cognitive experiences that intrinsically motivate behaviour, such as enhancement (e.g., feelings of fun and enjoyment) and coping (e.g., avoiding negative emotions). On the other hand, external rewards are viewed as tangible and physical experiences that extrinsically motivate behaviour, such as sociability (e.g., spending time with friends) and conformity (e.g., fitting in with a group). Illicit drug usage at music festivals provides individuals with the opportunity to purse both internal and external rewards, such that using illicit drugs enhances feelings of fun and enjoyment (internal reward) and also creates conformity when submitting to peer pressure (external reward) (Nemeth et al., 2011).

Question mark2 Case Study Link
  • Sarah had previously taken cannabis which implies that her attitude towards illicit drugs were already somewhat favourable (attitude). She knows that her friends think its cool to use illicit drugs and also feels pressure to conform with them (subjective norms). Sarah also does not feel confident saying no to Kelly's offer, and knows that Kelly will have no problems obtaining the illicit drugs (perceived behavioural control). This combination of internal and external rewards could explain Sarah's decision to use illicit drugs at the upcoming music festival

Identity status theory[edit | edit source]

Figure 5. Confusion over career pathways and study are just some of the factors that may led to identity confusion

There is a growing body of research looking at social learning models of motivation. When applied to illicit drug use at music festivals, these theories draw on the inner cognitive conflicts that could be motivating young people to use illicit drugs, as a way of developing a stronger sense of self identity and asserting their independence as new adults. Marcia (1996) developed the identity status theory as an extension of Erikson's stages of psychosocial development, by proposing that young adults go through four stages of identity development - identity diffusion, identity foreclosure, identity moratorium and identity achievement. Marcia (1996) suggested that during identity moratorium, individuals experience a sense of crisis, and respond by acting irrationally and taking risks. Arnett (2005) examined the identity status theory and applied it to illicit drug use, concluding that during the stage of crisis young people are motivated to take illicit drugs (at music festivals and in other circumstances) for two reasons:

  1. They feel that they need to experiment with illicit drugs in order to gain experience, which will help them develop a strong sense of self and overcome their identity crisis
  2. They are struggling to construct a stable sense of identity, so therefore take illicit drugs as a way of relieving their identity confusion.

Marcia (1996) stated that the identity moratorium stage usually happens between the ages of 16 to 24 years, which often coincides with the time when young people leave home, study at University, start having intimate relationships and decide on a career path. These circumstances often produce feelings of uncertainty which can leave a young person feeling confused about "who they really are". Not coincidentally, this identity crisis also occurs at around the same time young people are attending music festivals (Lim et al., 2010). Lim et al. (2010) suggests that young people see music festivals as a prime opportunity to explore their identity by experimenting with illicit drugs, because festivals are seen as an environment where illicit drug use is normalised and socially acceptable (see normalisation thesis). These findings also exemplify the uniqueness of illicit drug taking at festivals, by creating a clear separation between illicit drug usage at festivals and the behaviour of a 'stereotypical drug user'.

Personality traits[edit | edit source]

Another interesting area of research relating to inner cognitive processes is the role that personality plays in motivating certain individuals to use illicit drugs at music festivals. Katz, Fromme and D'Amico (2000) conducted longitudinal research of 162 college students over three years and concluded that low scores on social conformity, high scores on sensation seeking, high scores on impulsivity, and high scores on extraversion all significantly predicted illicit drug use. As well as predicting illicit drug use in general, Lim et al., 2010 found that individuals with similar personality traits are also more likely to regularly attend music festivals, when compared to individuals who score low on measures of sensation seeking and extraversion. Lim et al. (2010) hypothesised that this correlation was mainly due to the highly arousing nature of music festivals which are often very loud, bright and crowded. However, while Katz, Fromme and D'Amico (2000) found that scoring on measures of social conformity predicted illicit drug usage, other research contradicts this idea. As discussed in the TPB section, Petraitis, Flay and Miller (1995) found that individuals who use illicit drugs at music festivals often do it to fit in with their peers, rather than rebelling against them. This suggests that perhaps individuals who use illicit drugs at music festivals are motivated by a desire to "break the rules", but only if they are receiving support from their friends to do so.

Question mark2 Case Study Link
  • Sarah recently moved interstate to start studying at University and is struggling to make many new friends. She also recently broke up with her boyfriend and is starting to question whether she made the right decision. These feelings indicate that Sarah is feeling confused about her new identity, and may start acting out of character to cope with this confusion (Identity status). Sarah decides that she is sick of feeling sad and confused and that she is going to get out of her comfort zone and start experimenting with new things! An opportunity presented itself when Kelly asked if she wanted some MDMA for the upcoming music festival - although initially hesitant, Sarah sticks with her new attitude and tries something new.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

While music festivals seem to "promote" potentially harmful illicit drug use, they also provide young people with positive psychological benefits as well. Packer and Ballantyne (2010) found that music festivals are a great way for young people to enhance their social integration, self acceptance, subjective well-being, and autonomy. Furthermore, music festivals bring mass groups of young people together from all walks of life, creating an environment that fosters acceptance and tolerance. However, the aim of this chapter was to create a clear distinction between the motivational factors that cause young people to use illicit drugs at music festivals.

Exploring the unique atmosphere created by festivals, coupled with young peoples' changing patterns of leisure time and preference of music helps explain why festivals are a desirable drug using environment. Furthermore, the normalisation of illicit drugs in conjunction with the theory of planned behaviour and identity status theory shed light on the external factors and internal cognitions that combine to create this persuasive motivational force. Ultimately, while many young people choose to use illicit drugs at music festivals, the exact motivational reasons for each individual will be varied and unique. Future research should aim to optimise the positive impacts of music festivals as well as minimise the rate of drug use and the risks associated.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Ajzen, I. (1991). The Theory of Planned Behavior. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 50(2), 179-211.

Arnett, J. J. (2005). The developmental context of substance use in emerging adulthood. Journal of drug issues, 35(2), 235-254. doi: 10.1177/002204260503500202

Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2009). Arts and Culture in Australia: A statistical overview. Retired from:

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2013). Household survey 2013: Illicit drug use. Retrieved from:

Duff, C. (2005). Party drugs and party people: Examining the ‘normalization’of recreational drug use in Melbourne, Australia. International journal of drug policy, 16(3), 161-170. doi: 10.1016/j.drugpo.2005.02.001

Katz, E. C., Fromme, K., & D'Amico, E. J. (2000). Effects of outcome expectancies and personality on young adults' illicit drug use, heavy drinking, and risky sexual behavior. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 24(1), 1-22. doi: 10.1023/A:1005460107337

Kelly, B. C., Wells, B. E., Pawson, M., LeClair, A., & Parsons, J. T. (2014). Combinations of prescription drug misuse and illicit drugs among young adults. Addictive behaviors, 39(5), 941-944. doi: 10.1016/j.addbeh.2013.12.003

Lai, F. Y., Thai, P. K., O'Brien, J., Gartner, C., Bruno, R., Kele, B., ... & Carter, S. (2013). Using quantitative wastewater analysis to measure daily usage of conventional and emerging illicit drugs at an annual music festival. Drug and alcohol review, 32(6), 594-602. doi: 10.1111/dar.12061

Lim, M. S., Hellard, M. E., Hocking, J. S., & Aitken, C. K. (2008). A cross-sectional survey of young people attending a music festival: associations between drug use and musical preference. Drug and alcohol review, 27(4), 439-441. doi: 10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2015.05.002

Lim, M. S., Hellard, M. E., Hocking, J. S., Spelman, T. D., & Aitken, C. K. (2010). Surveillance of drug use among young people attending a music festival in Australia, 2005–2008. Drug and alcohol review, 29(2), 150-156. doi: 10.1111/j.1465-3362.2009.00090.x

Marcia, J. E. (1966). Development and validation of ego-identity status.Journal of personality and social psychology, 3(5), 551-558. doi: 10.1037/h0023281

Martinus, T., McAlaney, J., McLaughlin, L. J., & Smith, H. (2010). Outdoor music festivals: Cacophonous consumption or melodious moderation?.Drugs: education, prevention and policy, 17(6), 795-807. doi: 10.3109/09687630903357692

McMillan, B., & Conner, M. (2003). Using the theory of planned behaviour to understand alcohol and tobacco use in students. Psychology, Health & Medicine, 8(3), 317-328. doi: 10.1080/1354850031000135759

Nemeth, Z., Kuntsche, E., Urbán, R., Farkas, J., & Demetrovics, Z. (2011). Why do festival goers drink? Assessment of drinking motives using the DMQ‐R SF in a recreational setting. Drug and alcohol review, 30(1), 40-46. doi: 10.1111/j.1465-3362.2010.00193.x

Packer, J., & Ballantyne, J. (2010). The impact of music festival attendance on young people's psychological and social well-being. Psychology of Music, 39(1). 164-181. doi: 10.1177/0305735610372611

Petraitis, J., Flay, B. R., & Miller, T. Q. (1995). Reviewing theories of adolescent substance use: organizing pieces in the puzzle. Psychological bulletin, 117(1), 67-86. doi: 10.1037/0033-2909.117.1.67

Umeh, K., & Patel, R. (2004). Theory of planned behaviour and ecstasy use: An analysis of moderator‐interactions. British journal of health psychology,9(1), 25-38. doi: 10.1348/135910704322778704

Wilson, H., Bryant, J., Holt, M., & Treloar, C. (2010). Normalisation of recreational drug use among young people: Evidence about accessibility, use and contact with other drug users. Health Sociology Review, 19(2), 164-175. doi: 10.5172/hesr.2010.19.2.164

Winstock, A. R., Griffiths, P., & Stewart, D. (2001). Drugs and the dance music scene: a survey of current drug use patterns among a sample of dance music enthusiasts in the UK. Drug and alcohol dependence, 64(1), 9-17. doi: 10.1016/S0376-8716(00)00215-5

Wolfson, S. (2000). Students' estimates of the prevalence of drug use: Evidence for a false consensus effect. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors,14(3), 295-298. doi: 10.1037/0893-164X.14.3.295

External links[edit | edit source]