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Racial Differences in the Development of Impulsivity and Sensation Seeking from Childhood into Adolescence and Their Relation to Alcohol Use


Reprint requests: Sarah L. Pedersen, PhD, Department of Psychiatry, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, 3811 O'Hara Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15213; Tel.: 412-246-6969; Fax: 412-246-5650; E-mail:



Pronounced differences in drinking behavior exist between African Americans and European Americans. Disinhibited personality characteristics are widely studied risk factors for alcohol use outcomes. Longitudinal studies of children have not examined racial differences in these characteristics and in their rates of change or whether these changes differentially relate to adolescent alcohol use.


Latent growth curve modeling was performed on 7 annual waves of data on 447 African American and European American 8- and 10-year-old children followed into adolescence as part of the Tween to Teen Project. Both mother and child data were examined.


European Americans had higher initial levels of (β = 0.22, < 0.001) and greater growth in sensation seeking (β = 0.16, < 0.05) compared with African Americans. However, African American children had higher initial levels of impulsivity compared with European American children (β = −0.27 and −0.16, < 0.01). Higher initial levels of sensation seeking (β = 0.18, < 0.01) and greater growth in both sensation seeking (β = 0.24, < 0.01) and impulsivity (β = 0.30 to 0.34, < 0.01) related to subsequent frequency of alcohol use. The association between race and alcohol use was partially mediated by initial levels of sensation seeking (β = 0.04, < 0.05; 95% CI: 0.004 to 0.078). Additionally, sharper increases in sensation seeking predicted greater levels of subsequent alcohol use for European Americans (β = 0.33, < 0.001) but not for African Americans (β = −0.15, ns).


This study revealed different developmental courses and important racial differences for sensation seeking and impulsivity. Findings highlight the possibility that sensation seeking at least partly drives early alcohol use for European American but not for African American adolescents.