Attentional Bias to Alcohol-related Cues in Social Drinking College Students
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Problem drinking behavior has been suggested to vary along a continuum, progressing from binge drinking to debilitating alcoholism (Delin & Lee, 1992). However, even among light to moderate social drinkers, some cognitive indicators (e.g., attentional bias) of risk for alcohol use disorders may be found. The literature suggests that acute stress contributes to the development of problem drinking, especially among college students who utilize alcohol to cope with stress, and may serve as an environmental trigger for attentional biases toward alcohol and subsequent alcohol consumption (Field & Powell, 2007). The aim of this study was to examine the effect of stress on attentional bias to alcohol-related images in light and moderate social drinking college students. Participants performed a computerized, visual oddball target detection task in which they were asked to react to specific target pictures (either alcohol-related or neutral objects) before and after an acute stressor (timed mental arithmetic). Stress levels were measured via self-report measures and salivary cortisol, and performance on the oddball task was measured via reaction times (RT) to correct target images. It was hypothesized that a difference would be found in salivary cortisol levels and self report measures pre- and post-stressor, with a higher level of stress shown post stressor. It was also hypothesized that, following an acute stressor, participants responding to alcohol targets would exhibit faster RT than those who responded to the object targets. Analyses indicated that the stressor did not have a significant effect on salivary cortisol levels, but did reveal a significant within-subjects difference in State Trait Anxiety Inventory (STAI) scores pre- and post-stressor indicating the stressor had measurable effect on subjective, but not objective levels of stress. A mixed analysis of variance did not detect a significant difference between the RTs of the two condition groups as a function of stress (pre- and post -stressor). The lack of a significant reaction time difference between the two groups suggests that no attentional bias was exhibited in the alcohol target group compared to the object group, counter to predictions. Limitations of this study and considerations for future research are discussed.