Young Adults’ Self-Control Over Alcohol Boosted by Intervention

In the U.S. and many other countries, early adulthood is known as a time of high alcohol consumption and involvement in risky, potentially life-threatening alcohol-related practices. For young adults (and the members of other age groups), the ability to limit alcohol intake is linked to a belief in one’s ability to control drinking urges and behaviors. In a study scheduled for publication in July 2014 in the journal Addictive Behaviors, researchers from Great Britain and Iran investigated whether young adults can learn to increase their perceived level of drinking self-control.

Young Adults and Drinking

The federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration tracks year-to-year drinking behaviors among all Americans age 12 or older with a project called the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. The latest figures from this project show that, in the U.S., the peak overall rate of involvement in alcohol use occurs in young adults between the ages of 21 and 29. Compared to any other age group, young adults between the ages of 18 and 34 have the highest level of participation in heavy or excessive drinking, a term used to describe a weekly or monthly level of alcohol intake that leads to seriously increased risks for receiving an official diagnosis of alcohol-related problems (alcohol abuse and/or alcoholism).

Young adults in this same age range also have the highest level of participation in binge drinking, a form of rapid alcohol consumption that intentionally or unintentionally produces a state of legal drunkenness in a single, relatively short drinking bout. Major problems associated with binge drinking participation include fatal or nonfatal accidents, fatal or nonfatal acts of intentional violence, disruption of vital organ systems, fatal or nonfatal cases of alcohol poisoning, low academic performance and participation in unsafe sex.

Alcohol and Self-Control

Psychologists and psychiatrists sometimes refer to a belief in the ability to exert control over your own behavior as self-efficacy. The same term applies to a belief in the ability to withstand social pressures and a belief in the ability to determine your own underlying reasons for acting a certain way or setting specific goals. Generally speaking, people with adequate self-efficacy feel that they command their own destiny, while people with inadequate self-efficacy feel that their destiny depends on the actions of others or on the behavioral standards set by a peer group or a larger segment of society. The ability to control involvement in alcohol consumption (and other forms of substance use) can be heavily impacted by a perceived ability or inability to choose your own direction.

Can Young Adults Learn Self-Control?

In the study slated for publication in Addictive Behaviors, researchers from Great Britain’s Bangor University and Iran’s Ferdowsi University of Mashhad used a laboratory experiment to assess the possibility of improving the amount of self-perceived control that young adults have over their drinking behaviors. The participants in this experiment were 106 college students classified as moderate drinkers (people who don’t habitually consume enough alcohol to increase their risks for diagnosable problems). Some of these students were subjected to interventions specifically designed to increase a sense of drinking self-control, while others were subjected to interventions designed to decrease a sense of drinking self-control. The study also included a third group of study participants who did not have their perceived level of alcohol-related control destabilized or enhanced.

Before taking part in the experiment, all three groups exhibited roughly the same level of belief in their ability to control their drinking urges and behaviors. Specific aspects of this self-control included knowledge about alcohol-related harm, sensitivity to the effects of active alcohol consumption, the ability to choose whether or not to drink in a current situation and the ability to set future goals about drinking involvement. After taking part in the experiment, the group exposed to interventions designed to enhance a sense of self-control did indeed show an improved ability to establish their own drinking motivations, as well as a decline in their urges to consume more alcohol. On the other hand, the group exposed to interventions designed to destabilize a sense of self-control showed a decreased ability to establish their own drinking motivations, as well as an increase in their urges to consume more alcohol.

The study’s authors concluded that, with help from properly implemented assistance, young adults can learn how to increase their sense of alcohol-related self-efficacy.