Using the IAT to Predict Excessive Drinking

By Jordan Axt

A recent paper published in the journal Alcohol and Alcoholism used data collected at the Project Implicit Mental Health site to examine how implicit attitudes about drinking related to drinking behavior.

In the study, led by University of Washington psychologist Kristen Lindgren, over 500 first or second-year undergraduates completed measures of implicit alcohol associations and self-reported drinking behavior every three months over a span of two years. In each session, participants completed three IATs assessing: (1) alcohol + self (vs. other) associations, (2) alcohol + excitement (vs. depress) associations, and (3) alcohol + approach (vs. avoid) associations. In addition, participants reported their estimated daily drinking behavior, which allowed researchers to identify 'high risk' drinkers.

The researchers used a 'cross-lagged' analysis approach, which allowed them to investigate how changes in implicit associations corresponded with later changes in drinking behavior. For example, these analyses explored whether participants whose implicit attitudes about drinking become more positive from the first to the second assessment were more likely to be classified as high-risk drinkers in the third or later assessments. That is, the paper investigates whether individual changes in implicit associations beforehand can be used to understand later changes in drinking behavior.

Results found that performance on all three IATs could be used to predict subsequent high-risk drinking behavior. Participants who implicitly identified more as drinkers over time, or who showed stronger associations between alcohol and excitement or alcohol and 'approaching' over time, were more likely to show increases in alcohol consumption when measured later in the study. Interestingly, the reverse was also true: participants who showed increases in drinking behavior were also more likely to later show stronger implicit identification with drinking and stronger associations between alcohol and excitement as well as alcohol and 'approaching'.

One notable limitation is that these results relied on self-reported drinking behavior and not a more objective measure of alcohol consumption. It's possible that some participants underestimated or even exaggerated their drinking behavior. Another limitation is that the study did not include any self-report measures of alcohol-related attitudes, and similar results could have emerged when using such measures.

Despite the limitations, these results have potentially important implications for predicting excessive drinking behavior. For example, it's possible that changes in performance on alcohol-related IATs could be used to identify people who are most at risk for excessive drinking. This research also highlights the two-way relationship between implicit associations and behavior; just as changes in implicit associations predicted later changes in behavior, changes in behavior also predicted later changes in implicit associations.