Alcohol, Cognitive Control, and Social Behavior

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It is well known that alcohol consumption causes changes in many social behaviors, often leading drinkers to make riskier behavioral choices (e.g., fighting, risky sex) than they otherwise would. Recent theories have posited that these behavioral effects are driven by alcohol’s impairment of a host of high-level cognitive processes, often termed executive functions. Abilities such as inhibitory control, switching attention, and working memory updating are commonly described as executive functions. Together, these and related abilities form the basis of what is often termed cognitive control, or the effortful direction, engagement and activation of cognitive resources in the service of selecting and making task-appropriate responses in the face of interference. The purpose of cognitive control is to guide and update behavior in a flexible fashion, particularly under conditions in which a well-learned or prepotent response must be overridden with a novel, task-appropriate response. Such situations are characterized by competition between two response options, one of which requires control if it is to be executed properly. For example, responding according to the color of a word stimulus in the Stroop color-naming task (Stroop, 1935) requires cognitive control to overcome the prepotent tendency to simply read the word.

Recent research in a number of laboratories indicates that alcohol primarily impairs performance on tasks requiring cognitive control. That is, alcohol appears to have little effect on prepotent, automatically activated behaviors, but has a significant impact on the ability to successfully engage cognitive resources to inhibit a prepotent response and replace it with a controlled response. We recently investigated alcohol’s effect on cognitive control processes involved in the inhibition of responses indicative of racial bias, which is the tendency to respond in a discriminatory manner to members of different racial groups. We found that although automatic stereotype activation was not affected by alcohol, the ability to overcome the consequences of activated stereotypes by inhibiting stereotype-related behavioral responses was significantly impaired by a moderate dose of alcohol (Bartholow, Dickter, & Sestir, 2006). This inhibitory deficit was accompanied by a significant decrease in the amplitude of a particular ERP component, the negative slow wave, which is thought to reflect the engagement of cognitive control resources in the service of making task-appropriate responses (e.g., West & Alain, 2000).

Currently, we are extending this line of research by testing the effects of alcohol on ongoing performance monitoring and adjustment, another important aspect of cognitive control, while participants engage in a task that permits separate estimates of automatic and controlled components of responses associated with race bias. Recent research (e.g., Ridderinkhof et al., 2002) suggests that alcohol impairs the ability to monitor ongoing performance, and make adjustments when necessary, due to the drug’s effect on the brain’s error detection system. These findings have important implications for understanding intoxicated behavior, as they suggest that drinkers might persist in maladaptive or inappropriate actions because they do not recognize them as such. Another possibility, based on the extensive literature linking alcohol consumption with dampening of negative emotional responses, is that drinkers fail to adjust performance not because they do not notice behavioral errors, but because they are less distressed by their inappropriate or erroneous behavior than they otherwise would be (i.e., when sober). We are testing this idea using a number of tasks and measures that combine electrocortical (ERP) and other physiological (e.g., EMG, startle eye-blink response) and self-report responses to errors and error awareness.