Obviously, many college students drink a lot — but while some develop alcoholism, others never do. Previous research had shown a link between alcohol abuse and being an impulsive person in general, but “impulsive” can mean a lot of different things. In a new study, researchers found specific impulsive personality traits that, at least for young women, can make college drinking more likely to develop into a problem.
Psychology researchers Monika Stojek and Sarah Fischer surveyed 319 female college freshmen about their drinking habits, and asked them to complete a standardized test designed to spot alcohol abuse and dependence. They also asked the students why they drank — to forget their worries, for instance, or because all their friends were doing it. And they gave students a personality questionnaire to measure several different kinds of impulsivity: inability to deal with boredom, tendency to seek out new experiences, failure to plan for the future, and tendency to act inappropriately in response to positive or negative emotions.
They found that two traits were linked with a higher risk of alcohol abuse: failure to plan (which the study authors also called “lack of deliberation”) and acting out in response to negative emotions (also called “negative urgency”). They note that someone who doesn’t consider future negative consequences might be more prone to spiral into addiction. And people who have a hard time dealing with their bad feelings may drink to cope — which could keep them from learning healthier coping skills, and in turn lead to more drinking.
Indeed, subjects with higher negative urgency were more likely to say they drank to get rid of worries, or to feel good or high. Stojek told BuzzFeed Shift that “women who have high levels of negative urgency and tend to drink alter their emotional experiences, either to cope with negative emotions or to enhance their positive emotions, have the highest increases in alcohol dependence symptoms.” The study authors believe they’re the first to find this link between negative urgency, drinking to cope, and alcohol abuse.
These findings aren’t a shock — it’s easy to understand how poor planning and difficulty dealing with sorrow or pain could lead to problem drinking. But Stojek says her findings could be used to identify a specific “high-risk group of women” who have trouble reacting to bad feelings and tend to drink to get rid of them. Essentially, the study could give doctors and counselors at colleges a new tool to help them figure out who’s just having fun and who could be risking alcoholism.
The study also raises the intriguing question of whether men and women develop alcohol dependence for different reasons. One previous study found that female alcoholics were more likely to display neuroticism (tendency toward feelings of depression or anxiety) than male alcoholics were. It’s possible that alcohol abuse is more of a coping mechanism for women than for men. Stojek and Fischer’s study didn’t compare female college students with male ones, but that could be a fruitful avenue for further research — if the traits that can lead to alcoholism vary by gender, that’s something clinicians should know.
This story was updated to add clarification from Stojek about the portion of her research that dealt with women’s motivations for drinking.