Background: The use of alcohol is associated with various forms of automatic processing, such as approach tendencies and attentional biases, which may play a role in addictive behavior. The development of such automaticity has generally occurred well before subjects perform tasks designed to detect them. Although it seems plausible that this development involves some form of alcohol-related conditioning, this process is not usually included in the experimental procedure.
Methods: The development of automaticity involving alcoholic or nonalcoholic stimuli was experimentally manipulated via a conditioning task. Subjects were presented with pairs of stimuli from a set of 4 stimuli: 2 pictures of alcoholic beverages, and 2 pictures of nonalcoholic beverages. One of the alcoholic and 1 of the nonalcoholic beverages was associated with reward, the other stimuli with punishment. Subjects had to learn to select the rewarded stimuli from pairs of 1 rewarded and 1 punished stimulus. The task, thus experimentally established reward versus punishment stimulus–response–outcome associations, for alcoholic and for nonalcoholic stimuli. Subsequently, a cued reversal task was used to test automaticity involving alcoholic versus nonalcoholic, and rewarded versus punished stimuli.
Results: An association was found between heavier drinking and an alcohol-related conditioning bias: heavier drinkers had more difficulty overcoming a conditioned response when it involved selecting a previously punished nonalcoholic stimulus over a previously rewarded alcoholic stimulus.
Conclusions: The study provided novel information on secondary reinforcement involving alcoholic stimuli: heavier drinkers may more easily develop automaticity related to alcohol-reward contingencies. This may have implications for interventions and the interpretation of findings concerning alcohol-related automatic processing.