Reception honoring Department graduates and their families. Will begin at end of graduation ceremonies
Why did I drink too much . . . again?
Many recreational drugs such as alcohol are only mildly dangerous when used occasionally and in moderation and with awareness of the decreased capacities that are experienced under the influence of the drug. Over consumption, however, can bring with it a greatly increased risk of problems caused by a failure to take care of everyday responsibilities, accidents, injuries and even death.
Alcohol use and the risky behaviors associated with alcohol use increase markedly in late adolescence and early adulthood. What are some of the reasons why college students (and others) drink and, more importantly, why do people drink to excess thereby putting themselves and others at risk?
Research into alcohol use has pointed to two different types of things that can influence drinking. One type includes those things that reward the drinker in some way. Examples include the mood improvement and feelings of increased self-confidence usually associated with moderate alcohol consumption along with the social support and increased camaraderie shared with fellow drinkers. Things that reward the drinker contribute to alcohol use through positive reinforcement.
The second set of factors contributes to alcohol use through negative reinforcement. These factors involve the removal or elimination of things the drinker finds unpleasant or aversive. One example that may play an especially important role in college-age drinking is the elimination of peer pressure when an initially reluctant person goes along with friends’ demands that she drink more than she would like. Another example is the lessening or elimination of negative emotional states such as depression, anxiety or fear of failure or inadequacy that can accompany alcohol consumption.
Measurement procedures that enable an assessment of the propensity to engage in risky behaviors can be very valuable for identifying people who may be at risk of hurting themselves or others through excessive drinking. Different types of measures currently exist for assessing the propensity to engage in risky behavior that is susceptible to positive reinforcement. However, the measurement options for risky behavior that is susceptible to negative reinforcement are more limited. In particular, measures of the relationship between risky behavior and negative reinforcement are generally based on asking a person about their risky behavior rather than on directly measuring their risky behavior.
Dr. Laura MacPherson and her colleagues have developed a method for directly assessing the relationship between risky behavior and negative reinforcement called the Maryland Resource for the Behavioral Utilization of the Reinforcement of Negative Stimuli (MRBURNS). The adequacy of MRBURNS was evaluated against a sample of college freshman who identified themselves as regular consumers of significant amounts of alcohol.
MRBURNS is a computer program that asks a person how many pumps of air they want to use to inflate a balloon. Every pump of air reduces the duration of a loud an unpleasant noise by a set amount. However, if too much air is pumped into the balloon, it explodes. Every time the balloon explodes the person’s chances of winning money in a lottery is reduced. If the balloon never explodes, the person is guaranteed to win the lottery. This sets up a situation where a behavior (pumping up the balloon) is both risky (the balloon may explode which decreases the chance the person will win the lottery) and negatively reinforced (the duration of the unpleasant noise is reduced with every pump of air). The analogy with drinking lies in having a behavior (drinking alcohol) that is both risky (all of the well-known problems that stem from excessive or intemperate alcohol use) and negatively reinforced (removal of peer pressure to drink or feelings of anxiety or inadequacy, for example).
Dr. MacPherson and her colleagues reported that an increase inrisky behavior as measured by MRBURNS was positively correlated with several measures of emotional states that are often associated with negative reinforcement such as feelings of anxiety or depression. In addition, MRBURNS was not correlated with procedures that directly measure risky behavior that is associated with positive reinforcement. With regard to drinking behavior, MRBURNS was positively correlated with self reports of drinking motivated by negative reinforcement but was not correlated with self reports of drinking motivated by positive reinforcement.
Taken together these findings suggest that MRBURNS is capable of providing an assessment of the relationship between risky behavior and negative reinforcement that can be combined with measures that assess the relationship between risky behavior and positive reinforcement to give a more complete picture of the factors that incline a person toward engaging in risky behavior. MRBURNS shows potential for being a powerful tool that can be used to help identify people who are risk for engaging in self-destructive or dangerous behaviors before they hurt themselves or others.