How Do Emotional Control and Alcohol-Related Thinking Affect Drinking Risks?
Essentially all adults hold conscious or unconscious beliefs about alcohol use. In turn, adults also think about their own alcohol-related perceptions. In a study published in April 2015 in the journal Addictive Behaviors, researchers from Poland’s University of Warsaw sought to determine how young women’s alcohol-related thought processes interact with their abilities to control their emotions, as well as their abilities to avoid consuming alcohol in problematic ways. These researchers concluded that young women’s thoughts about their alcohol use largely help determine if poor emotional control will contribute to the onset of alcohol problems.
Whether they know it or not, alcohol consumers and non-consumers have beliefs that influence their basic perceptions of drinking. Some people associate alcohol use with positive things such as feeling good, relaxing and improving social interactions; psychologists refer to this type of alcohol-related outlook as a positive alcohol expectation. Other people associate alcohol use with negative things such as hangovers, an impaired ability to function and increased risks for long-term health problems; psychologists refer to this type of alcohol-related outlook as a negative alcohol expectation. Broadly speaking, individuals with positive alcohol expectations drink more often than individuals with negative alcohol expectations and also have higher chances of consuming excessive amounts of alcohol.
Alcohol-related beliefs are largely shaped by cultural and social factors. These factors can influence such things as acceptable locations for alcohol consumption, acceptable levels of alcohol intake in any given setting or situation, acceptable behavior while under the influence of alcohol and the seriousness attached to alcohol-related harm and the development of diagnosable alcohol problems. It’s important to note that social and cultural views on alcohol can change over time. For example, research findings in the 21st century consistently point to a declining level of alcohol consumption and drunkenness among American teenagers, as well as an increasing awareness of the potentially severely damaging consequences of alcohol use.
Psychologists commonly use the term metacognition to refer to the distinctly human ability to consciously reflect upon currently held thoughts or beliefs. Like other higher-level mental functions, this ability develops gradually over the normal course of growth and development before reaching a mature state in early adulthood. Metacognitive thinking can potentially produce a level of self-critique that helps the individual assess his or her circumstances and make changes that increase health and well-being. However, metacognitive thinking (or a lack of age-appropriate metacognition) may also support persistent involvement in harmful current patterns of behavior or diminish the ability to detect new patterns of harmful behavior. Alcohol-related thinking is one area where metacognition may have an important impact.
Impact on Young Women’s Alcohol Problems
In the study published in Addictive Behaviors, the University of Warsaw researchers used a project involving 502 women between the ages of 18 and 25 to assess the connection between young women’s alcohol-related metacognition, ability to exert emotional control and level of risk for developing diagnosable alcohol problems. All of the study participants took two screening tests—the Negative Alcohol Metacognition Scale and the Positive Alcohol Metacognition Scale—designed to reveal their typical alcohol-related thought processes. All of the participants also took a widely used screening test for serious alcohol problems, known as the Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test or AUDIT. In addition, each participant took a screening test called the Difficulties in Emotion Regulation Scale, which is designed to detect impaired emotional control.
The researchers found that when alcohol-related metacognition is not taken into account, there is no obvious connection between a young woman’s ability to exert emotional control and her chances of developing potentially diagnosable alcohol problems. However, when alcohol-related metacognition is taken into account, the level of involvement in this form of thinking clearly influences problematic alcohol use. Specifically, the researchers concluded that young women whose alcohol-related metacognition favors alcohol use have significantly increased chances of experiencing difficulties with emotional control and subsequently consuming alcohol in risky ways.
The study’s authors note that their findings largely mirror previous findings on the impact of young adults’ higher-level thinking regarding alcohol use. However, they believe that this impact may be limited to younger people.