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Psyschology Study On Drinking Essay, Research Paper


In response to the need for research that incorporates multiple aspects of theory into a testable

framework, this study attempted to replicate and extend the results of Cooper, Russell, Skinner, Frone,

and Mudar (1992). A modified stressor vulnerability model of stress-related drinking was tested in a

homogeneous sample of 65 male and female undergraduate student drinkers. Total weekly consumption of

alcohol was used as the criterion measure, whereas family history of alcoholism (Adapted SMAST: Sher &

Descutner, 1986), alcohol outcome expectancies/valences (CEOA: Fromme, Stroot, & Kaplan, 1993),

perceived stress (PSS: Cohen, Kamarck, & Mermelstein, 1983), and coping dispositions (COPE: Carver,

Scheier, & Weintraub, 1989) were used as the predictor variables. The proposed modified model postulates

that expectancies play a proximal mediating role in stress-related drinking, whereas gender, family history

of alcoholism, and coping all play a distal moderating role. Hierarchical multiple regression procedures were

then performed to evaluate the model. The results failed to support the hypothesized model. Specifically,

expectancies emerged as a distal rather than proximal predictor of stress-related drinking, and family history

of alcoholism did not moderate stress-related drinking. In contrast, gender and coping styles emerged as the

most powerful predictors in the model. Despite the shortcomings of the proposed model, the present results

offer an alternative interpretation as to what constitutes the stressor vulnerability model of stress-related



Stress as a Causal Factor in Drinking

One of the common stereotypes about the effects of alcohol involves the drug’s capacity to act as a

stress antagonist. Conger (1956) has proposed a theory, known as the tension reduction hypothesis (TRH)

of drinking, to support this notion. Essentially the theory holds that alcohol’s sedative action on the

central nervous system serves to reduce tension, and because tension reduction is reinforcing, people drink

to escape it (Marlatt & Rohsenow, 1980). Strong evidence to support the validity of the theory comes

from epidemiological findings which indicate that the prevalence of anxiety disorders in alcoholics ranges

from 16 to 37%, compared to a rate of only 4-5% in the general population (Welte, 1985).

Notwithstanding, there seems to be a subset of people for whom the predictions of the TRH do not

hold. For instance, in a study conducted by Conway, Vickers, Ward, and Rahe (1981) it was found that the

consumption of alcohol among Navy officers during periods of high job demands was actually lower than the

consumption during low-demand periods. In addition, other studies (i.e., Mayfield, 1968; Mendlson, Ladou,

& Soloman, 1964) have shown that some drinkers actually consider alcohol as a tension generator rather

than a tension reducer.

Overall, when taking into account these conflicting findings, it seems prudent to find some middle

ground. The solution to this problem than is a modified version of the TRH, specifying the conditions under

which stress will lead to an increase in drinking.

Moderating and Mediating Factors in Stress Induced Drinking

In addition to stress, several other variables have been shown to be crucial in determining an individual’s

drinking behavior. These variables include gender of drinker (gender), coping behavior of drinker (coping),

and alcohol outcome expectancies of drinker (expectancies). In the following discussion, the importance of

each of these variables to drinking will be considered first, followed by an evaluation of these as potential

moderators or mediators of stress in drinking. 1

Differential Gender Drinking Behavior

It has been repeatedly demonstrated that significant differences exist between the drinking patterns of

men and women (Hilton, 1988). In a comprehensive survey of US drinking habits conducted by the US

National Center for Health Statistics in 1988, significant gender differences were found in three areas as

pointed out by Dawson and Archer (1992). The first significant difference pertained to the number of male

and female current drinkers. Roughly 64% of all men were current drinkers in comparison to 41% of all

women. The second and third significant differences concerned the quantity of alcohol consumed. Men

were more likely to (a) consume alcohol on a daily basis and (b) be classified as heavy drinkers. Men’s daily

average of ethanol intake (17.5 grams per day) was almost twice as high as women’s (8.9 grams per day).

Even when an adjustment for body weight was made (females require less ethanol than males to achieve a

similar increase in blood alcohol level), men’s consumption was still 53% greater than women’s. With

regards to drinking classification, males were classified substantially more often than females as heavy

drinkers (i.e. the number of males who drank five or more drinks a day was 88% greater than the

corresponding number of females). Furthermore, as the classification measures became stricter so did the

disparity between male and female heavy drinkers increase (i.e., the ratio of male to female heavy drinkers

increased by a factor of 3 as the definition of heavy drinker was changed from five drinks or more a day to

nine drinks or more a day).

Gender as a Moderating Factor of Stress

To understand why men and women drink differently requires an understanding of the prevailing

socialization practices (Dohrenwend & Dohrenwend, 1976; Horwitz & White, 1987). According to this

sociological view, “women have been socialized to internalize distress, whereas men have been socialized to

externalize distress” (Cooper, Russell, Skinner, Frone, & Mudar, 1992; P. 140). Therefore, women tend to

cope with stress by utilizing personal (internal) devices such as emotion, rather than impersonal (external)

devices such as alcohol, which are used more often by men. In addition, men and women also hold

differential expectations about the effects of drinking. Several studies (i.e. Abrams & Wilson, 1979; Sutker,

Allain, Brantly, & Randall, 1982; Wilson & Abrams, 1977) have shown that “although pharmacological

effects appear to be similarly stress reducing for both sexes, the belief that alcohol has been consumed may

actually increase distress among women” (Cooper et al. , 1992; P. 140). Therefore, it seems plausible that

females actually expect to experience some form of distress from drinking as opposed to males’ expectation

to experience tension reduction from drinking (Rohsenow, 1983).

Differential Coping Styles in Drinking

Considerable evidence has been accumulated in support of the notion that certain methods of coping are

more likely to be associated with problem drinking than others (Moos, Finney, & Chan, 1981). This has

led to the development of social learning theory which postulates that abusive drinkers differ from relatively

healthy drinkers in (a) their capacity to effectively cope with stressors and (b) in their beliefs about drinking

(Abrams & Niaura, 1987).

In general, two types of coping responses have been shown to predominate in most situations (Folkman

& Lazarus, 1980). The first type, problem-focused coping (also known as approach coping), is directed at

either solving the presenting problem or altering the source of the stress (Carver, Scheier, & Weintraub

1989). The second type, emotion-focused coping (also known as avoidance coping ), attempts to reduce the

unpleasant emotional feelings which accompany the stressor (Carver et al. , 1989). Even though people

usually use both methods in response to a given stressor, the former type will tend to predominate when

people feel that the situation is changeable, whereas the latter type will tend to predominate when people

appraise the situation as unchangeable (Folkman & Lazarus, 1980).

People who predominantly resort to avoidance coping have been shown to display pathological drinking

behavior much more than those who utilize approach coping (Cooper, Russell, & George, 1988; Cooper et

al. , 1992). Those who typically resort to avoidance coping (a group which consists of up to 25% of all

drinkers), report that they do so in order to regulate negative emotions (Cahalan, Cisin, & Crossley, 1969;

Mullford & Miller, 1963; Polich & Orvis, 1979). The strongest evidence to support this contention

comes from studies which have investigated post-treatment relapse in alcoholics. In three such studies

(Marlatt, & Gordon, 1979; Moos et al. , 1981; Moos, Finney, & Gamble, 1982), it was found that

individuals were more likely to relapse in situations which elicited unpleasant emotional states.

Coping as a Moderating Factor of Stress

The key to understanding the differential impact of avoidance and approach coping on drinking lies in

the availability of an effective coping response to a given stressor (Cooper et al. , 1992). By definition,

people who utilize approach coping mechanisms to deal with their stress, engage in concrete problem

solving which serves to actively reduce the amount of stress. By contrast, people who rely on avoidance

coping may manage to reduce their distress, but they tend to do so by distracting themselves from the stress.

Therefore, it is not surprising that drinking should appeal more to those who predominately use avoidance

coping, because the consumption of alcohol serves as a substitute action which can distract from the stress.

When viewed from a social learning perspective (Abrams & Niaura, 1987), it can be seen that “alcohol use

serves as a general coping mechanism invoked when other presumably more effective coping responses are

unavailable” (Cooper et al. , 1992; P. 140). Evidence to support this idea comes from studies (i.e., Higgins

& Marlatt, 1975; Hull & young 1983; Marlatt, Kosturn, & Lang, 1975) which have investigated drinking in

response to negative affects, when no coping alternative was present. For instance, Marlatt et al. (1975)

have shown that drinkers who were provoked and were unable to retaliate drank significantly more at a

subsequent taste rating task than drinkers who had the option to retaliate (Cooper et al. , 1988).

Differential Expectancies About Drinking

Alcohol outcome expectancies (AOE) can be thought of as the beliefs people hold about the effects of

drinking (Goldman, Brown, & Christiansen, 1987). These expectancies first develop in childhood as indirect

learning experiences (e.g., media, family modeling, peer influence ) and, as a result of increased direct

experiences with the pharmacological effects of alcohol, become more refined (Christiansen, Goldman, &

Inn, 1982; Christiansen & Goldman, 1983; Christiansen, Goldman, & Brown 1985; and Miller, Smith, &

Goldman, 1990).

The expectancies that people hold about alcohol have been shown to predict alcohol consumption in a

variety of settings (Goldman, Brown, & Christiansen 1987). Brown, Goldman, Inn, and Anderson (1980)

have shown that light drinkers typically hold global expectancies about alcohol (i.e. alcohol affects multiple

factors), whereas heavy drinkers typically hold more specific expectancies, such as alcohol’s ability to

increase sexual and aggressive behavior. Furthermore, Brown (1985a) has shown that people who hold the

expectancy that alcohol enhances social experience are less likely to be problem drinkers than people who

drink with the expectancy of tension reduction. It is important to note, however, that AOE may “vary with

learning context, personal characteristics of the drinker, amount of alcohol consumed, and other addiction

risk factors” (Brown, 1993; P. 58).

Expectancies as a Mediating Factor of Stress

Although it is well established that AOE differentially predict drinking behavior (Brown, 1993), very little

is known about how they exert their effects. To date, most of the research suggests that AOE (gender

specific) directly predict alcohol consumption and, as such, are thought to play a mediational role (Brown,

1993). Intuitively, it makes sense that people who hold the expectancy that alcohol can alleviate their stress

should drink more than people who do not hold this expectancy. However, little research has been

conducted thus far to support this contention. Prior to Cooper et al. (1992), only one study (McKirnan &

Peterson, 1988) investigated the role of expectancies in stress-induced drinking. The study tested a stress-

vulnerability model among homosexual men, who show culturally specific stressors and vulnerability (i.e.,

homophobic discrimination). It was found that tension reduction expectancies significantly predicted

drinking among individuals who experienced “negative affectivity” stress (i.e., low self-esteem). Although

the Mckirnan and Peterson (1988) study found that expectancies exacerbated stress, the utility of the

findings is limited because of the use of a non-representative sample of gay males, and non-standard

measures of stress (Cooper et al. , 1992).

The Synthesis of Gender, Coping & Expectancies in Stress-Related Drinking

As was discussed previously, gender, coping, and expectancies are thought to play a significant role in

stress-related drinking. Nevertheless, the bulk of literature in this area has typically investigated these

factors in isolation from each other (at best, only two of these factors have been combined simultaneously).

Since stress-related drinking , however, is such a complex phenomenon (recall that the tension reduction

hypothesis of drinking does not apply universally) it is necessary to integrate these factors in order to gain a

complete, holistic picture.

The only study which has combined all three factors simultaneously was the landmark study of Cooper et

al. (1992). The study tested an interactional model of stress-related drinking which postulated that

“exposure to environmental stressors is most strongly related to alcohol use and abuse among vulnerable

individuals”, such that, “Vulnerable individuals are more likely to be male, to hold strong positive

expectancies for alcohol’s effects, and to have limited adaptive coping responses” (Cooper et al. , 1992; P.

141). The results supported a stressor vulnerability model of drinking. As expected, it was found that men

were more likely to drink than women by virtue of their gender role socialization. More importantly,

however, it was also found that, for problem drinking to occur in men, a second vulnerability factor must

often be present. In particular, men who either held strong positive expectancies or relied on avoidant forms

of coping were more likely to be problem drinkers than men who did not possess these attributes. (Cooper

et al. , 1992). With respect to expectancies, it was shown again that both men and women who held strong

positive AOE, drank significantly more then men and women who did not. Much more important, however,

was the finding that “expectancies appeared to function as stressor vulnerability factor among men but not

among women” (Cooper et al. , 1992; P. 148).

Finally, with regards to coping, it was confirmed that coping styles play an important role in problem

drinking. However, significant interactions with gender and expectancies were also indicated. Men who

relied on avoidant forms of coping were more likely than women to be vulnerable to stress induced drinking.

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