Restrained Drinking and Cognitive Control among Adolescents

By Williams, Robert J.; Ricciardelli, Lina A. | Adolescence, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview
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Restrained Drinking and Cognitive Control among Adolescents

Williams, Robert J., Ricciardelli, Lina A., Adolescence


The present study investigated restrained drinking and self-control in relation to alcohol consumption and problem drinking in a sample of adolescents. One hundred ninety-eight high school students (97 males and 101 females; mean age = 16.45 years) completed questionnaires that assessed levels of alcohol consumption, problem drinking, restrained drinking, and cognitive self-control. The findings were similar for males and females: higher levels of restrained drinking, as measured by cognitive emotional preoccupation (CEP), predicted higher levels of alcohol consumption and problem drinking. Moreover, it was high CEP in combination with a low score on a general measure of cognitive self-control that differentiated problem drinking from high levels of drinking. The results are consistent with previous research on young adults. The findings are discussed in relation to Baumeister and Heatherton's (1996) model of self-regulation failure.

The early onset, as well as the severity, of drinking problems among adolescents continues to be of concern. Levels of alcohol consumption in this age group are alarmingly high, and it has been reported that 35% develop at least one symptom of alcohol dependence/abuse by 19 years of age (Martin, Langenbucher, Kaczynski, & Chung, 1996; Lewinsohn, Rohde, & Seeley, 1996; Winters, Stinchfield, Fulkerson, & Henly, 1993).

Young people develop positive expectancies about the effects of alcohol even before they actually start drinking, primarily via imitation and modeling (Christiansen, Goldman, & Inn, 1982; Schafer & Leigh, 1996). These expectancies range from global satisfaction to more specific beliefs that alcohol use will result in assertiveness, pleasure, relaxation, and sexual enhancement (Brown, Christiansen, & Goldman, 1987).

The interactions between expectations of alcohol as a potent change agent and adolescents' self-concepts are crucial (Davey, 1990; Towber man & McDonald, 1993). Young adolescents are on the threshold of what has been called the "social press" of drinking (Brennan, Walfish, & Buchon, 1986), and admonitions about control must compete with the lure of enhancing one's reputation by taking risks (Hopkins & Emler, 1990; Keefe, 1994; Odgers, Houghton, & Douglas, 1996). Drinking to excess is one of these risk-taking behaviors.

Excessive drinking has many negative consequences. For example, it can interfere with scholastic performance. Indeed, the failure to meet role obligations (e.g., at home or school) characterizes "heavy and heedless drinking," which is the initial DSM-IV alcohol-related symptom to appear among adolescents (Martin et al., 1996).

Exerting control over alcohol consumption involves some degree of response conflict (Bensley, 1991). Unfortunately, a widespread method of control--labeled restraint--has been shown to be counterproductive. Restraint is typified by rigid control interspersed with bouts of bingeing (i.e., loss of control). The paradox of restraint is that trying harder to exert control actually predicts greater instability in subsequent behavior, rather than improvement in self-regulation (see Collins, 1993, for a review). In short, increased cognitive/emotional efforts amounting to preoccupation with, and worries about, control often increase the gulf between intention and behavior.

In adults, drinking restraint has been shown to predict binge drinking, problem drinking, and dependent styles of drinking (Collins & Lapp, 1992; Collins, Gollnisch, & Izzo, 1996; Connor, Williams, & Ricciardelli, in press). Since many adolescents develop an early form of alcohol dependence/abuse (Martin et al., 1996), the construct of restraint can prove useful in examining adolescent drinking behavior.

Two important aspects of restraint are cognitive emotional preoccupation (CEP) and cognitive behavioral control (OBO). The distinction between CEP, preoccupation with control, and CEO, actual attempts at control, not only enables the success of restraint to be measured, but also reveals the dynamic interplay between cognition and behavior.

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