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Open Access Highly Accessed Research

When wanting to change is not enough: automatic appetitive processes moderate the effects of a brief alcohol intervention in hazardous-drinking college students

Brian D Ostafin1* and Tibor P Palfai2

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Psychology, University of Groningen, Grote Kruisstraat 2/1, 9712, TS, Groningen, The Netherlands

2 Department of Psychology, Boston University, Boston, MA, USA

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Addiction Science & Clinical Practice 2012, 7:25  doi:10.1186/1940-0640-7-25

Published: 7 December 2012

Abstract

Background

Research indicates that brief motivational interventions are efficacious treatments for hazardous drinking. Little is known, however, about the psychological processes that may moderate intervention success. Based on growing evidence that drinking behavior may be influenced by automatic (nonvolitional) mental processes, the current study examined whether automatic alcohol-approach associations moderated the effect of a brief motivational intervention. Specifically, we examined whether the efficacy of a single-session intervention designed to increase motivation to reduce alcohol consumption would be moderated by the strength of participants’ automatic alcohol-approach associations.

Methods

Eighty-seven undergraduate hazardous drinkers participated for course credit. Participants completed an Implicit Association Test to measure automatic alcohol-approach associations, a baseline measure of readiness to change drinking behavior, and measures of alcohol involvement. Participants were then randomly assigned to either a brief (15-minute) motivational intervention or a control condition. Participants completed a measure of readiness to change drinking at the end of the first session and returned for a follow-up session six weeks later in which they reported on their drinking over the previous month.

Results

Compared with the control group, those in the intervention condition showed higher readiness to change drinking at the end of the baseline session but did not show decreased drinking quantity at follow-up. Automatic alcohol-approach associations moderated the effects of the intervention on change in drinking quantity. Among participants in the intervention group, those with weak automatic alcohol-approach associations showed greater reductions in the amount of alcohol consumed per occasion at follow-up compared with those with strong automatic alcohol-approach associations. Automatic appetitive associations with alcohol were not related with change in amount of alcohol consumed per occasion in control participants. Furthermore, among participants who showed higher readiness to change, those who exhibited weaker alcohol-approach associations showed greater reductions in drinking quantity compared with those who exhibited stronger alcohol-approach associations.

Conclusions

The results support the idea that automatic mental processes may moderate the influence of brief motivational interventions on quantity of alcohol consumed per drinking occasion. The findings suggest that intervention efficacy may be improved by utilizing implicit measures to identify those who may be responsive to brief interventions and by developing intervention elements to address the influence of automatic processes on drinking behavior.

Keywords:
Automatic processes; Alcohol; Implicit association test; Motivational intervention; Self-control; Self-regulation; Addiction