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

Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2018 Apr;235(4):935-945. doi: 10.1007/s00213-018-4854-3. Epub 2018 Feb 22.


Background: 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.

Methods: 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.

Results: 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.

Conclusions: 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.

Keywords: Alcohol; Cannabis; Context; Human; Opioid; Social; Stimulant.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Affect / drug effects*
  • Affect / physiology
  • Analgesics, Opioid / administration & dosage*
  • Cannabis*
  • Central Nervous System Stimulants / administration & dosage*
  • Ethanol / administration & dosage*
  • Humans
  • Social Behavior*
  • Substance-Related Disorders / psychology


  • Analgesics, Opioid
  • Central Nervous System Stimulants
  • Ethanol