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Fun or Frightening? College Students Vary in How They Rate Alcohol Experiences — and Their Ratings May Help Predict Their Future Drinking

Fun or Frightening? College Students Vary in How They Rate Alcohol Experiences — and Their Ratings May Help Predict Their Future Drinking

by Research Society on Alcoholism
November 29, 2021

Newswise — Drinking alcohol may relieve boredom, enhance social enjoyment, cause a blackout or hangover, or impair performance, among other consequences. But whether these experiences are positive or negative is a matter of disagreement among college students, according to the literature and supported by findings from a new study. Moreover, how these drinkers subjectively rate their experiences may influence their future alcohol consumption and risk of problematic drinking. Heavy drinking is common among college students, despite its seemingly negative consequences. “Behavioral economic demand” refers to the value placed on a commodity, in this case alcohol. Alcohol demand may influence future behavior, including drinking. Greater reinforcement (alcohol demand) is a key risk factor for problematic drinking and alcohol use disorder. College students report more positive than negative alcohol consequences, and previous studies suggest that positive perceptions influence their drinking behavior more than negative perceptions. For the new study in Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, investigators aimed to explore the link between both “negative” and “positive” consequences and students’ demand for alcohol. Better understanding of this process may inform more effective interventions for those at risk.

Researchers worked with data from 114 college students, mostly women, in the northeastern USA, aged 18–25. Participants filled out questionnaires rating the extent to which certain alcohol-related consequences (e.g., “I have spent too much time drinking”) were positive versus negative. A hypothetical alcohol purchase task — how many alcoholic drinks participants would consume at various prices under certain conditions — was used to measure their alcohol demand. The participants also provided data on their discretionary spending money, typical alcohol use, and demographic characteristics. The investigators used statistical analysis to explore associations between students’ alcohol demand, alcohol-related consequences, and how they rated the consequences of drinking.

Both negative and positive consequences were linked to greater alcohol demand by some (but not all) analytical measures, and students who experienced more positive consequences also reported more negative consequences. The association between consequences and demand was strongest for drinking “intensity”: how much alcohol the participants expected to consume if it were available at no cost. Students’ ratings varied considerably, especially for ostensibly negative consequences. Needing a drink in the morning, and unplanned drinking — which indicate a risk for problematic drinking — were viewed overall as almost neutral or slightly positive.

The findings suggest that alcohol-related consequences influence intensity, potentially reflecting greater reinforcement from alcohol. The resulting heavy drinking may lead to additional consequences, establishing a cycle. But the relationship between consequences and demand is complicated. Other factors (e.g., what students expect from alcohol) may also influence the desire to drink. The researchers concluded that intervention strategies may benefit from targeting students’ positive evaluations of consequences, and by modifying how students rate certain ostensibly negative consequences (such as impaired control over alcohol).

Associations between alcohol demand and both the experience and subjective evaluation of positive and negative alcohol-related consequences. E. Aston, B. Berey, H. Boyle, B. Riordan, & J. Merrill. (pp xxx)