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Researching the Behavioral Effects of Alcohol Use

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Drinking in college is often glamorized in the movies. College students, the heaviest-drinking demographic group, may experience undesirable outcomes from binge and other drinking behaviors. Dr. Amy Bacon and her student researchers focus their studies on participants who drink to cope with major life challenges versus those who drink socially.

Dr. Amy Bacon, assistant professor of psychology, oversees Bradley’s new Stress, Emotion, and Alcohol Laboratory (SEA Lab) designed to study college students’ drinking habits and factors influencing that behavior through both laboratory and survey research.

Nationally, alcohol use, abuse, and dependence are among the biggest health problems and are major research priorities.

Bradley is one of about 15 universities in the country to have a lab that investigates this topic in a setting that resembles an actual drinking atmosphere. “Most universities that have research bar labs are larger state schools,” Bacon said. “We are the smallest institution that I am aware of to have such a facility.”

Unlike most larger institutions, Bacon’s lab assistants are undergraduates who observe and gather data. Six students worked with her last spring, learning complex protocols associated with the study that will prepare them for advanced research in competitive graduate schools.

Participants in these studies must be 21 years old and have completed a comprehensive interview process that includes information about medical history, medications, age and other factors. Bacon’s chief priority is to ensure a safe and monitored environment while working to better understand why and how college students drink, to improve treatments for destructive drinking behaviors, and to identify students who will struggle with post-college drinking issues.

The pre-screened study participants are served alcohol in the simulated bar based on varying scenarios that elicit behavioral responses. These responses are recorded by the student research assistants and monitored by Bacon.

One of the primary reasons college students drink is to cope with stress due to social situations and relationships, depression and internal bad feelings. “These students are different from students who drink to be social, to feel good, or who may believe drinking is integral to college life as portrayed in movies such as Animal House,” Bacon said. “The latter group will likely mature out of their college drinking habits while the others may be at greater risk of having lifelong drinking problems.”

The research findings will assist Bacon in collaborating with colleagues who are engaged in the treatment and prevention of alcohol abuse in college students.

By Susan Andrews
Photography by Duane Zehr