Researchers find a strong connection between 'behavioral undercontrol' and stimulation from alcohol

January 14, 2003

Alcohol can act as a stimulant, causing subjective feelings of euphoria, or a sedative, causing feelings of sluggishness, or both. The degree to which people experience the stimulating and/or sedating effects of alcohol is believed to have an impact on their risk for developing alcohol problems. A study in the January issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research has found that drinkers with higher levels of a personality trait called "behavioral undercontrol" are more likely to experience higher levels of stimulation while drinking, placing them at greater risk for developing alcohol problems.

"Research has demonstrated that stimulation effects are most prominent at lower 'doses' of alcohol, while sedative effects are most prominent at higher doses," said Joel Erblich, assistant professor of biobehavioral medicine at the Ruttenberg Cancer Center, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, and first author of the study. "In addition, at a given dose of alcohol, stimulation is most prominent at first, while blood alcohol levels are rising; this is what we refer to as the 'ascending limb' of the blood alcohol curve. Sedation becomes the prominent experience during the 'descending limb' of the curve, when blood alcohol levels are falling. The theory is that drinkers who experience higher levels of stimulation, thought to be a generally positive consequence of drinking, together with lower levels of sedation, thought to be a negative consequence, would be at risk for drinking problems because their overall experience with drinking is more favorable than that of others."

Erblich added that numerous studies have linked behavioral undercontrol, such as sensation seeking and impulsivity, with problem drinking. "What has not been well studied, however, is the possibility that undercontrol is an important predictor of drinking for some people but not for others," he said. "We hypothesized that undercontrol would be a much more important predictor of alcohol problems among individuals who experience favorable subjective responses to alcohol."

College drinkers (n=91; 64 males, 27 females) consumed 0.85 ml/kg of alcohol (approximately 4 drinks), divided into two cups, with participants allowed five minutes to drink each cupful. Each participant completed self-report measures of stimulation and sedation at three time points: before drinking (baseline), 15 minutes after consumption (on the ascending limb of the blood alcohol curve), and 45 minutes after consumption (on the descending limb of the curve). Participants also completed the MacAndrew Alcoholism and Sensation Seeking scales, indices of behavioral undercontrol, and a self-report questionnaire of drinking habits (pertaining to quantity, frequency, and maximum amounts).

"Our results reinforce previous findings that link drinking behavior with the undercontrol personality trait," said Erblich. "We also found that people who experienced higher levels of stimulation when drinking tended to have higher levels of drinking behavior. Our key finding, however, was that undercontrol was a much more important predictor of drinking behavior for those who experienced higher levels of stimulation than for those whose feelings of stimulation were not as pronounced."

Erblich said these results call into question the long-standing assertion that undercontrol universally relates to drinking behavior. He suggests that the relationship may be markedly less pronounced than previously thought among individuals who do not experience high levels of stimulation when drinking.

"In short," said Guy Montgomery, assistant professor of biobehavioral medicine at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, "sensation seekers most vulnerable to developing drinking problems are those who most experience alcohol's initial stimulating effects. These results are the first to demonstrate that the effects of behavioral undercontrol interact with perceived alcohol stimulation."

Both Erblich and Montgomery believe these findings can help improve prevention efforts. "These data may be able to help us identify individuals who are more likely to develop alcoholism," said Montgomery. Erblich concurs: "Identifying personality traits such as undercontrol, while helpful in itself, might be even more helpful if we knew how the individual typically responds to drinking."

Erblich believes that future research could explore other problems associated with behavioral undercontrol. "This personality type has been linked to other behaviors besides drinking, such as gambling and risky sexual behavior," he said. "We may learn, for example, that undercontrol is an important predictor of pathological gambling only among people who get a big 'rush' from gambling. In terms of alcoholism prevention, we might be able to help people with the undercontrol personality trait identify other, less dangerous forms of behavior as substitutes for drinking before they become addicted. The individual risk, public health burden, and other negative consequences related to alpine skiing, for example, are likely negligible compared to those of alcoholism."
The co-author of the Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research paper was Mitchell Earleywine of the Department of Psychology at the University of Southern California. The study was funded by Jonathan Kellerman and Albert Marston Clinical Research funds, and the Alcoholic Beverage Medical Research Foundation.

Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research

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