Paradoxically, Higher Drinking Restraint Leads to Increased Alcohol Consumption
Drinking restraint is the term that researchers and addiction specialists use to characterize a fixation with the need to exert control over one’s alcohol-consuming behaviors. In a study published in May 2014 in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence, researchers from Boston University sought to determine how the presence of this mental/emotional preoccupation affects the balance between impulsive urges to drink alcohol and a higher-level brain ability called executive function, which helps control impulsive urges. These researchers concluded that, somewhat paradoxically, the presence of relatively high drinking restraint apparently increases the likelihood that a person will want to consume alcohol under certain circumstances.
All people have conscious or unconscious motivations that influence their chances of drinking alcohol in any given set of circumstances. Examples of these motivations include a self-generated desire to fit in socially with others, the external pressure to follow social rules or norms regarding alcohol intake, a desire to compensate for or cope with the presence of unpleasant or painful emotions and a desire to feel or heighten a sense of enjoyment or pleasure. Researchers can use any one of a number of tools to measure the interacting influences of various drinking motivations, including a 20-item questionnaire called the Drinking Motives Questionnaire-Revised or DMQR. Each of the 20 items on the DMQR allows participants to gauge the influences of the main potential motivating factors on a scale of one to five.
Young children have relatively little ability to contemplate their actions and make rational decisions on how to behave in the future. However, as they grow older and pass through adolescence and into adulthood, this ability—known as executive function—gradually strengthens as the brain moves closer and closer to its final stage of development. Specific aspects of executive function that help adults use logic to plan for the future include remembering past events and placing those events into a current context, knowing how to calculate the pros and cons of various thoughts and ideas, keeping simultaneous awareness of potentially competing goals or objectives, knowing how to consider the possible negative outcomes of a goal or objective, and knowing how to make mid-course corrections in ideas, plans or beliefs as needed. People affected by substance abuse or substance addiction commonly lose some of their ability to think rationally, make plans and consider the potential consequences of their actions.
The Impact of Drinking Restraint
Some people have a relatively strong preoccupation with the need to restrain their drinking behaviors, while others have little or no such preoccupation. In the study published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence, the Boston University researchers used an assessment of 69 young adults between the ages of 21 and 30 to test the effects that high and low levels of drinking restraint have on the ability to use executive function and avoid impulsive alcohol intake. All of these participants were known to engage in dangerous alcohol consumption (i.e., consumption that increases the risks for diagnosable alcohol-related problems). Each of them took a simple test, called the Trail Making Test, which helps measure executive function. After taking this test, each participant was placed in a situation where he or she could see and smell alcohol and believed that alcohol consumption would soon be an option. Next, all of the 69 participants took additional tests that measured their urge to drink and the effects of drinking anticipation.
For each study participant, the researchers compared the outcomes of the executive function test to the outcomes of drinking urge and drinking anticipation tests. After completing this comparison, they concluded that, based on the results of the executive function tests and the urge and anticipation tests, they could predict that the participants who displayed high levels of drinking restraint (that is, high levels of preoccupation with controlling alcohol intake) would want to consume more alcohol. They could not make the same predictions for the study participants not affected by high levels of drinking restraint.
Significance and Considerations
The findings published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence partially mirror the results of an earlier study, published in 2010 in the journal Addictive Behaviors by a team of Australian researchers. This 2010 study compared the relative influences of drinking restraint and specific alcohol consumption motivations on the chances that a group of teens and young adults between the ages of 17 and 34 would drink in risky ways. The authors of the current study believe that their findings point toward a need to consider drinking restraint and other underlying motivations when trying to determine how alcohol consumers control (or don’t control) their intake.