Salience, Cognitive Control, and Alcohol

Drinking alcohol is inherently a social behavior. Alcohol commonly is consumed in social settings, possibly because it facilitates social bonding and group cohesion (Sayette et al., 2012). Many of the most devastating negative consequences of alcohol use and chronic heavy drinking also occur in the social domain. Theorists have long posited that alcohol’s deleterious effects on social behavior stem from impaired cognitive control. Several of our experiments have shown evidence consistent with this idea, in that alcohol increases expression of race bias due to its impairment of control-related processes (Bartholow et al., 2006, 2012).

But exactly how does this occur? One answer, we believe, is that alcohol reduces the salience of events, such as a control failure (i.e., an error), that normally spur efforts at increased control. Interestingly, we found (Bartholow et al., 2012) that alcohol does not reduce awareness of errors, as others had suggested (Ridderinkhof et al., 2002), but rather reduces the salience or motivational significance of errors. This, in turn, hinders typical efforts at post-error control adjustment. Later work further indicated that alcohol’s control-impairing effects are limited to situations in which control has already failed, and that recovery of control following errors takes much longer when people are drunk (Bailey et al., 2014). Thus, the adverse consequences people often experience when intoxicated might stem from alcohol’s dampening of the typical “affect alarm,” seated in the brain’s salience network (anterior insula and dorsal anterior cingulate cortex), which alerts us when control is failing and needs to be bolstered (Inzlicht et al., 2015).