Blame it on the brain, not the alcohol.
That’s the message from a team of researchers from the University of Central Florida who say that how people feel and act while drinking isn’t caused only by the content or volume of alcohol consumed, but also by their expectations about the effects of alcohol.
“Alcohol is a depressant that can cause dizziness, nausea and other physical symptoms, but many of the ‘positive’ things people experience when they drink alcohol, like feeling more social, outgoing and talkative, are actually the result of classical conditioning,” said Tom Hall, director of UCF’s clinical services related to alcohol and other drug abuse.
“Before age 21, a child growing up in the United States has been exposed to tens of thousands of images of alcohol through advertising, movies, television and other media. Media portrayals often link alcohol with having a good time, so people are conditioned to associate a happy mood and carefree feeling with alcohol,” said Hall. “When a person steps into a bar, goes to a tailgate, or attends a party, their beliefs about how alcohol should affect them are activated.”
Hall partnered with associate professor Michael Dunn and a group of doctoral students who make up UCF’s Substance Use Research Group. Their work has focused on developing an intervention called the Expectancy Challenge Alcohol Literacy Curriculum, a 45-minute program that uses media literacy to decrease high-risk alcohol consumption.
They say that if people—especially college students—are better educated about how alcohol expectancies are developed, then they’re more likely to make better decisions about how much they drink.
“Alcohol use tends to decline after completing the curriculum,” said Dunn. “With heavy drinking college students, we observe significant reductions in alcohol use.”
The curriculum includes modules that debunk common myths about drinking. For example, one video shows an experiment in which 12 college students went to a bar expecting to be given as much free beer as they could drink. Some of the students were given alcoholic beer, but the rest were given non-alcoholic beer. The students drinking the non-alcoholic substitute acted the same, if not more drunk, than those given real beer.
Hall and Dunn have received more than $500,000 in external funding since 2007 to develop the curriculum. Their group recently received a $30,000 challenge grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to reduce high-risk drinking among college students.
The latest grant will help the team develop an iPad app for the Expectancy Challenge Alcohol Literacy Curriculum in collaboration with UCF Psychology Professor Clint Bowers. The app will be self-guided which will improve accessibility across multiple audiences.
The program is already being implemented on campuses across the country, and it’s also being tested in Orange County Public Schools. Expectancies have been demonstrated to predict drinking behavior, so the goal is to change expectancies before high school students start drinking.
“The Expectancy Challenge Alcohol Literacy Curriculum has been successful because the purpose of the program is not to pass judgment on students or lecture them about their drinking,” said Hall. “We want them to understand the difference between the real effects of alcohol and expectations so that they can make educated decisions about drinking. We want to support their academic success by helping students make informed choices.”
To learn more about the Substance Use Research Group visit, http://psychology.cos.ucf.edu/surg/.