Background: Behavioral decision making, as measured by the Iowa Gambling Task (IGT) is found to be diminished in individuals with substance dependence and other types of disinhibitory psychopathology. However, little is known regarding the relation between heavy alcohol use and decision-making skills in young adults. This study therefore investigated whether binge drinking is related to disadvantageous decision making, as measured by the IGT. We also examined the relation between decision making and impulsivity.
Methods: Latent class growth analysis was used to classify college students into 4 groups (each group n=50, 50% male), based on their binge drinking trajectories over a 2-year time period (precollege through second year of college). Participants were 200 college students, divided in 4 subgroups: (1) low binge drinkers, (2) stable moderate binge drinkers, (3) increasing binge drinkers, and (4) stable high binge drinkers. A measure of decision making, the IGT, impulsivity questionnaires, and multiple indicators of heavy alcohol use were included.
Results: The stable high binge-drinking group made less advantageous choices on the IGT than the low binge-drinking group. Impulsivity was not related to decision-making performance. Decision-making performance did not differ by gender, but deck preferences and decision time patterns did differ; women preferred low frequency, high amount punishments to a greater extent than men.
Conclusions: Although disadvantageous decision making is related to binge-drinking patterns in emerging adulthood, this relation is independent of impulsivity. Additionally, the association appears attributable to those who engage in heavy (binge) drinking at an early age, but not to age of onset of drinking in general.