Behavioral economic analysis used to predict alcohol problems among heavy-drinking college students

Most people drink less in situations where there are constraints on alcohol use. The sensitivity of alcohol use to the constraint of drink price can be assessed using an 'alcohol purchase task', whereby individuals specify how many drinks they would buy in one drinking episode across a range of prices. The data indicate an individual's 'demand' for alcohol, which correlates with severity of alcohol use and related consequences. A new study published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research builds on such research by assessing the constraint of next-day responsibility on alcohol-related consequence in college students.

The analysis involved 370 heavy-drinking undergraduates who provided information on their typical weekly alcohol intake and drinking-related problems. Each student completed two alcohol purchase tasks, assessing how many drinks they would consume at 17 prices ranging from $0 to $20 per drink in a hypothetical context of either no next-day responsibilities or of having a test the next morning worth 25% of their class grade.

As expected, students indicated they would drink less as the drink price increased and alcohol demand was less under the next day test context. Alcohol demand under the next day test condition also was more predictive of greater weekday drinking frequency and severe consequences of drinking (alcohol dependence and compulsive drinking). However, demand as measured by the first task, no next day responsibility, better predicted a less severe pattern and consequences of drinking ─whereby the greater the alcohol demand in the face of a price constraint only, the more likely the student was to engage in weekend drinking and have milder alcohol-related problems (such as hangovers).

This research provides novel information about the link between alcohol demand, consumption and alcohol-related problems. The findings support the theory that addiction is a disorder of 'behavioral allocation', in which decisions to drink are less responsive to circumstances that limit drinking for most drinkers. The work also has implications for use of alcohol purchase tasks in drink prevention efforts, in that a dual-constraint task may be better able to identify heavy-drinkers at greatest risk of severe alcohol problems; in contrast, a task based on price only ─which better predicts less severe problems ─may be more appropriate for use among lighter-drinking populations.

Source:
Journal reference:

Jouner, K.J., et al. (2019) High Opportunity Cost Demand as an Indicator of Weekday Drinking and Distinctly Severe Alcohol Problems: A Behavioral Economic Analysis. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research. doi.org/10.1111/acer.14206.

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