Context effect on activation of college students' implicit alcohol cognitions: Moderation by alcohol use and sensitivity to reward
O'Connor, Roisin M
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Cognitive theory suggests that our beliefs about the effects of alcohol use have a direct effect on drinking behavior. More positive than negative beliefs put a person at increased risk for heavy alcohol use. The theory also posits that these alcohol-related cognitions mediate the influence of distal predictors. Furthering our understanding of the cognitive processes germane to alcohol use may inform etiology. Consistent with memory network models, cognitions central to alcohol use may be automatically activated and not available for self-report (implicit cognition). One goal of this study was to develop a measure of implicit alcohol-related cognition that has strong theoretical underpinnings. A second goal was to examine the effects of distal predictors on implicit cognition, such as environmental context and personality. A sample of college freshmen completed a laboratory-based experiment. Participants read either a vignette depicting an alcohol or non-alcohol relevant context. They then completed a lexical decision priming task which was designed to assess positive and negative implicit alcohol-related cognitions. Alcohol use and personality (sensitivity to reward) were assessed via self report. Heavy drinkers were expected to have stronger positive than negative associations with alcohol use. Responses on the priming task did not support this. Instead heavy drinkers appeared to have less access to positive associations with non-alcohol concepts. Environmental context alone did not influence implicit alcohol-related cognitions. Drinking status and sensitivity to reward clarified the role of context. Results suggest that heavy drinkers in environments conducive to alcohol use and those with a high sensitivity to reward, regardless of context, are more inclined to activate a pattern of implicit cognitions that support alcohol use. Theoretical implications of the findings and future directions for research are discussed.