Decision Making and Response Inhibition as Predictors of Heavy Alcohol Use: A Prospective Study

Alcohol Clin Exp Res. 2011 Jun;35(6):1050-7. doi: 10.1111/j.1530-0277.2011.01437.x. Epub 2011 Feb 17.


Background: Very few studies have investigated the "real world" prospective, predictive value of behavioral instruments used in laboratory studies to test decision-making abilities or impulse control. The current study examines the degree to which 2 commonly used decision-making/impulse control measures prospectively predict (heavy) alcohol use in a sample of college students.

Methods: Two hundred healthy young adults (50% women) performed the Iowa Gambling Task (IGT) and a StopSignal inhibition task in the second college year. At testing and at the end of the fourth college year, heavy alcohol use was assessed.

Results: Disadvantageous performance on the IGT was associated with higher scores on a heavy drinking measure and higher quantity/frequency of alcohol use 2 years past neurocognitive testing in male students even after controlling for prior drinking. These results were corrected for heavy drinking and alcohol use in the period before neurocognitive testing. Interactions with gender indicated that this general pattern held for male but not for female students. Level of response inhibition was not associated with either of the alcohol use measures prospectively.

Conclusion: These findings indicate that a neurocognitive decision-making task is predictive of maladaptive alcohol use. Advantageous decision makers appear to show adaptive real-life decision making, changing their drinking habits to the changing challenges of early adulthood (e.g., finishing college), whereas disadvantageous decision makers do not, and continue to drink heavily. These findings extend earlier findings of neurocognitive predictors of relapse in clinical substance-dependent groups, to subclinical alcohol use and abuse.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Alcohol Drinking / psychology*
  • Alcoholism / diagnosis
  • Alcoholism / psychology*
  • Decision Making* / physiology
  • Female
  • Follow-Up Studies
  • Gambling / psychology*
  • Humans
  • Inhibition, Psychological*
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Male
  • Predictive Value of Tests
  • Prospective Studies
  • Psychomotor Performance / physiology
  • Young Adult