Background: Cognitive processes are thought to be pivotal to risk for heavy drinking. However, few studies have examined the alcohol cue-activated positive and negative semantic memory networks that may be pivotal to drinking behavior. Moreover, much is to be understood about the influences of cognitive processes, particularly in high-risk drinking samples such as college students. The current study examines the sequential process of alcohol cues activating valenced semantic memory networks, and the influences of prior drinking experience and individual differences in motivational drive on this automatic (implicit) cognitive process.
Methods: Participants (N = 138, 52% women) were college freshmen prescreened to represent the full range of drinking experience (i.e., current abstainers, light and heavy drinkers). Participants completed self-reports of past month alcohol use, and individual differences in behavioral inhibition system (BIS) and behavioral approach/activation system (BAS). Alcohol cue-elicited positive and negative semantic memory networks were assessed using a priming task.
Results: Results from the priming task revealed that for light drinkers alcohol cues were equally as likely to activate positive and negative semantic memory networks, suggesting relatively neutral cue-elicited alcohol attitudes. Conversely, for heavy drinkers, alcohol cues more readily activated positive relative to negative semantic memory networks, suggesting relatively positive cue-elicited alcohol attitudes. Furthermore, positive alcohol cue-elicited semantic memory networks (positive attitudes) were evident for individuals characterized by a strong BAS and weak BIS (as hypothesized) and those characterized by a weak BAS and weak BIS.
Conclusions: The findings suggest that alcohol-cue elicited positive semantic memory networks may be pivotal to risk for heavy drinking. Specifically, it is via the influence on this cognitive process that prior drinking experience and individual differences in motivational drive, respectively, may maintain and predispose individuals to risk for heavy alcohol use.