Supplement Directors: Paul J. Gruenewald, Ph.D. and Christina Mair, Ph.D.
Understanding why people drink, what causes them to drink as much as they do, and why some drinkers continue to drink despite the many problems that drinking may cause in their lives, remains a key concern of alcohol researchers. We know that some drinkers “abuse” alcohol; their drinking leads to many family, work and social problems. We know that other drinkers are alcohol “dependent”; they drink despite these problems, drink compulsively, drink to avoid or reduce other problems, or experience “alcohol withdrawal;” additional problems arise when they don’t drink, causing them to start drinking again. The “spiral of addiction” that this may cause can lead to significant health problems, liver cirrhosis, and death.This project looks at what it means to be a “normal” drinker, someone who is “normally” responsive to alcohol’s effects: Most people “only drink as much as they can.” When they start having problems they reduce how often or how much they drink so they don’t have those problems in the future. Some drinkers, however, do not appear to respond to the problems that occur when they drink. We want to know why this is true and, if we can, find a way of measuring how different drinkers respond to problems related to their drinking. To do this, we built a simple mathematical model of drinking behavior that allows us to conduct these measurements using available survey data. We can then take a look at differences between “normal” vs. “dependent” drinkers.
We built the simplest mathematical model of drinking that we could in order to characterize “normal” drinking behaviors. We just assume that whenever someone drinks, Qt, these lead to problems, Pt. Then, when the same drinker drinks again she takes previous consequences of drinking into account; if she experiences more problems, she drinks less; if she experience no problems, she might drink the same amount or more. Under normal circumstances, the problems she experiences will moderate the amount she drinks. The diagram to the right pictures these relationships.
We use this model to take a look at what kinds of control over drinking “normal” drinkers’ exhibit. “Normal” drinkers respond to the behavioral controls in their alcohol environments; if drinking leads to more problems, these drinkers drink less. They only drink as much as they feel they can to avoid problems.
Some drinkers, however, may drink a great deal more because they need to do so to continue to experience the pleasurable effects of intoxication (tolerance) or to avoid problems related to less use (withdrawal symptoms); these drinkers experience unusual benefits related to drinking, Bt, and drink more than they should. This is one very naïve way of describing what happens when someone is addicted to alcohol or alcohol dependent. The diagram also shows that these benefits will moderate subsequent drinking.
We use this aspect of the model to take a look at what kinds of control over drinking “dependent” drinkers’ exhibit. “Dependent” drinkers also respond to the behavioral controls in their alcohol environments, but much less so. They continue to sometimes drink much more than they should.
In some ways all these observations may be common knowledge. All we’ve done is come up with a mathematical way of showing these relationships.
That would be unimportant except for two curious observations:
We are still working on this, but here’s what we know so far:
What can we do with this information?
All this research is in a very early stage and quite technical, but we think there are a few things that you should keep in mind: