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Is love really like a drug? VCU course examines science behind media portrayals of romance and substance abuse

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Jessica Salvatore, Ph.D.

As part of a new course at Virginia Commonwealth University, students have authored papers analyzing pop songs — “Your Love is my Drug” by Kesha, “Drunk on a Plane” by Dierks Bentley, and Huey Lewis and the News’ “I Want a New Drug” among them — that deal with themes and metaphors related to romantic relationships and drug and alcohol abuse.

“I analyzed Justin Timberlake’s ‘Pusher Love Girl,’” said Ashley Stewart, a senior in the Department of Psychology in the College of Humanities and Sciences. “It’s about being in love with someone [that] makes you want to be with them all the time and feeling like you need to be with them all the time. He makes the comparison to certain drugs, so in my paper I make comparisons to those same drugs.”

The five-week course, “Love and Drugs: The Science Behind Media Portrayals of Romance and Substances of Abuse,” taught by Jessica Salvatore, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychology and a College Behavioral and Emotional Health Institute researcher, was inspired during a long flight where she happened to watch three movies that all in some way touched on the theme of relationships and substance abuse.

“This is what I research,” said Salvatore, who studies how close relationship processes and alcohol misuse interface across development, particularly in the high-risk emerging adulthood period. “A lot of these movies were geared toward young adults and some of the depictions made me really uncomfortable and were very contradictory to what I know empirically about, for example, what happens after people break up.

“It’s not that everyone goes on benders and they’re drinking and partying like crazy,” she said, “and so I realized that there’s all sorts of misinformation in the media and also in what people might read in popular magazines about relationships. This [course was] a way for me to try to address that with students.”

The course’s objective was to examine the science behind portrayals of romance and substances of abuse in popular music and movies using developmental, social psychological, neurobiological and behavioral genetic perspectives. It explored topics such as the neurobiology of love and addiction, the effects of relationships on substance use and the effects of substance use on relationships.

We spent most of our time … answering the question: What do we know about relationships and substance use disorders?

“Our goal when we set out at the beginning of this class was to be able to apply scientific theory and evidence to evaluate the accuracy of popular media portrayals of romantic love and substance use and abuse,” Salvatore said. “So we spent most of our time in class together building this scientific foundation — answering the question: What do we know about relationships and substance use disorders?”

While there are many unanswered questions about the ties between relationships and substance abuse, researchers have made a number of conclusions.

“We know that substance use is associated with feelings and behaviors in close relationships, including feelings of satisfaction, as well as the experience and management of conflict,” she said. “We know that relationships and substance use disorders share underlying genetic influences, as well as neurobiological influences and that we can harness the power of relationships to intervene with individuals who are suffering from a substance use disorder.”

As part of the course, students were assigned to write critical reviews of pop songs, movies and TV shows dealing with themes of love and substance abuse, applying the scientific perspectives and principles of the course to examine the accuracy of the media’s portrayals.

Shantel Ericsson, a junior psychology major, chose to write about Jaden Smith’s “Fallen,” as well as the TV show “Love & Hip Hop.”

“I looked at a scene that was really popular in which one of the main characters was drinking and her boyfriend came to apologize to her for something, and she went through all these severe mood swings,” Ericsson said. “So I kind of looked at how when one person doesn’t drink in a relationship, they might take on a kind of parental role and it might affect their satisfaction in their relationship.”

Ericsson said “Love and Drugs” is her favorite course she’s taken at VCU.

“Jessica’s so nice and she actually researches in this field, so it clearly impacts how she teaches and you can really tell she knows what she’s talking about,” she said. “She makes it interesting and fun and makes you want to be here [in class].”

Salvatore said she hopes to offer the course again, saying it was fun to develop, teach and even to grade papers.

“Grading papers is usually something that instructors complain about because it tends to take longer than just grading multiple choice questions on a quiz, for example,” she said. “But these have just been so much fun to read.”

More than anything, Salvatore said, she hopes students are now better equipped to apply scientific principles and facts about love, drugs and alcohol when they consume media or hear claims about relationships and substance abuse from friends and family.

“The thing I want you guys to walk away from this class with is that when someone makes a claim about ‘the way things are,’ that you now know how to find scientific evidence to evaluate those claims,” Salvatore told the students on the final day of class. “Because there are a lot of messages that we are given every single day about human behavior … Parents, grandparents, friends, music and movies bombard us every single day with messages about relationships and substance use. But, as you guys have demonstrated in your papers, sometimes there’s not always empirical support behind the claims that are being made.”

The Department of Psychology offers several one-credit, five-week "Spotlight on Psychology" special topics courses, such as "Love and Drugs," that give psychology majors a chance to learn about a faculty member's research in a small classroom setting. 

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