Research Description

Alcohol has powerful emotional rewards. A beer after work can relieve the tension of the day, a bottle of wine with a friend can conjure a sense of warmth and affiliation, and a mixed drink at a social gathering can engender feelings of elation or, alternatively, ease the stress of the occasion. The emotional effects of alcohol consumption are highly reinforcing and, in some individuals, may lead to problematic drinking. Many modern psychological theories of addiction center around the premise that it is alcohol’s ability to alter affective state that primarily drives alcohol consumption.

Of note, research exploring alcohol’s emotional rewards has overwhelmingly examined the solitary rather than the social drinker. Laboratory-based studies have examined individuals drinking alone, and studies outside the lab often fail to assess social elements of experience. Thus, little is known about how social factors impact the reward that people experience from alcohol. But humans are fundamentally social beings. The nature of our relationships with those around us—the quality of the social interactions we engage in on a daily basis—is among the more powerful and important known factors influencing our emotional states. Further, the overwhelming majority of alcohol consumption occurs in social context. Regardless of age, nationality, or problem drinking status, people mainly consume alcohol in the company of other people (Fairbairn & Sayette, 2014). Thus, in order to fully understand alcohol’s rewarding properties, it is critical to understand how social factors and alcohol act in combination. Nonetheless, perhaps partially due to the methodological challenges associated with studying alcohol reinforcement in naturalistic social context, little is known about alcohol’s rewarding effects in social settings.

In the University of Illinois’ Alcohol Research Laboratory, we bring multiple methods to bear on this question, combining laboratory and ambulatory methods to explore those uniquely social elements of alcohol-related reinforcement.  This line of research has its roots in work conducted at the University of Pittsburgh, where the lab’s Principal Investigator, Dr. Catharine Fairbairn, completed her graduate training with Michael Sayette. It has since been enriched by collaborations with colleagues at the University of Illinois as well as researchers at the University of Buffalo, the University of Michigan, Vanderbilt University, and Purdue University. Our research employs laboratory alcohol-administration procedures involving ecologically-valid group drinking paradigms and sophisticated, objective nonverbal measures of emotion. More recently, we have begun combining these laboratory methods with procedures that harness technological advances in ambulatory assessment, including transdermal measures of BAC and photographic indexes of social context, that bring some of the precision of the laboratory into the real world.  We use these methods to address questions of enduring interest to addiction researchers, including the question of why alcohol enhances mood—what are the mechanisms that underlie alcohol-related reward?—who is particularly sensitive to alcohol’s reinforcing properties—how do individuals differ in the reinforcement they gain from alcohol?—and finally the question of where this alcohol reinforcement might be especially pronounced—are there social contextual moderators of alcohol’s reinforcing effects? Below we briefly describe the research we have conducted with respect to each of these three questions.

Mechanisms Underlying Alcohol Reinforcement

Research indicates that alcohol’s emotionally reinforcing properties are especially potent in social context. Laboratory as well as field studies suggest that alcohol consumption produces dramatically larger positive mood enhancing and negative mood relieving effects when it is consumed in social context compared to when it is consumed in isolation. This leaves open the question of why—what is it about the combination of alcohol and social context that they can together evoke such a powerful emotional response.

We have used a range of methods to explore mechanisms underlying alcohol’s social rewards. Together with Michael Sayette at the University of Pittsburgh, we used alcohol-administration methods to explore the possibility that alcohol’s social rewards are explained by alcohol’s ability to bring the drinker more fully into the present moment, enabling him/her to enjoy the rewards of social interaction and to leave the troubles of the past behind (Fairbairn & Sayette, 2013). More recently we proposed a social-attributional model of alcohol response, using meta-analytic methods to support the thesis that alcohol’s effects within a social context are explained by its tendency to free individuals from preoccupation with social rejection, allowing them to enjoy positive social experiences (Fairbairn & Sayette, 2014). In our ongoing research we have introduced cognitive and social psychological measures and manipulations into our study of mechanism and, in future work, plan to integrate EEG and eye tracking to better understand processes underlying alcohol’s effects in social context.

Individual Differences in Alcohol Reinforcement

Individuals can differ dramatically in how they respond to alcohol. Two people with nearly identical drinking histories can display very different reactions to drinking—in one individual alcohol might conjure up intense feelings of elation and relaxation while, in the other, it might simply promote a mild sense of lightheadedness or drowsiness. Importantly, those who display heightened sensitivity to alcohol reward have been shown to be susceptible to developing an alcohol use disorder. In the alcohol research laboratory, we are interested in examining how individuals might differ in the specifically social elements of alcohol’s rewarding effects. Our research has produced experimental evidence of susceptibility to these social elements of alcohol reward among individuals with a range of risk factors for alcohol problems, including individuals with current heavy drinking patterns (Fairbairn, Sayette, Aalen, & Frigessi, 2015), as well as those with personality types that put them at risk for alcohol use disorder (Fairbairn, Sayette, Wright, et al., 2015). In light of striking differences across men and women in rates of problem drinking, a particular focus of our research has been gender. In several studies, we have found support for the premise that all-male drinking groups gain more social reward from drinking than do groups containing females (Fairbairn, Sayette, Amole, et al., 2015; Fairbairn, Sayette, Aalen, et al., 2015).  Further, this research on the specifically social elements of alcohol’s effects has led us to develop a novel statistical technique for examining the “contagiousness” of behaviors in social settings, a method that we describe in detail in a recent publication (Fairbairn, 2016).

Social Contextual Factors in Alcohol Reinforcement

Historically, addiction researchers in the psychological and medical disciplines have focused overwhelmingly on characteristics of the individual in examining alcohol reinforcement and susceptibility to addiction. This intensive focus on the individual ignores the substantial variation in drinking that occurs as a function of typical drinking context, variation that can be mapped both across cultures around the world as well as within cultures over time. Thus, a major emphasis of our previous and ongoing work in the alcohol research lab is an exploration of where people drink and of how social contextual factors can inform the understanding of alcohol-reinforcement. We have examined a range of social contextual factors as moderators of alcohol’s reinforcing effects and addiction susceptibility, including the heterogeneity of drinking groups (Fairbairn, Sayette, Levine, Cohn, & Creswell, 2013), the quality of relationships among individuals in these drinking contexts (Fairbairn & Cranford, in press; Fairbairn & Testa, in press), as well as the level of familiarity among these individuals (Fairbairn & Sayette, 2014).

In order to better understand the role of context in determining alcohol reinforcement, we have recently begun combining laboratory investigations of alcohol-response with methods that gauge experience outside the lab. We are now nearing completion of our first large-scale trial that combines laboratory and ambulatory measures. Our ambulatory work harnesses technological advances in the measurement of Blood Alcohol Content, as well as the measurement of emotional response, bringing some of the precision of the laboratory into the real world. Participants in our ambulatory studies take photographs of their surroundings at multiple time points throughout the day in response to random prompts on their mobile devices. Participants supply captions to these photographs, and photographs are classified by our lab for situational characteristics. In addition to supplying photographs, participants wear ankle devices that index their blood alcohol content continuously through the skin.  The transdermal measurement of alcohol consumption produced by these devices have been validated in laboratory work and circumvent compliance and (at high levels of consumption) cognitive challenges associated with traditional self-report measures of alcohol consumption. In our future research, we plan to continue to combine ambulatory and laboratory measures of emotional response, as well as the mechanisms potentially underlying this response, in order to more fully understand alcohol’s effects in social context and alcohol reward more broadly.

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