Teenagers get a bad press these days. One complaint is that they're forever lurking about getting drunk. Now Erling Moxnes and Lene Jensen have come up with a rather radical proposal based on the idea that teenagers often don't mean to get as drunk as they do. According to the researchers, teenagers frequently over-inebriate because they fail to take account of the stomach delay - the fact that alcohol continues to enter the blood-stream long after a person stops drinking.
Moxnes and Jensen challenged fifty-five 16 and 17-year-olds to achieve a specific blood alcohol concentration level using a personalised computer simulation of the drinking process. The programme asked the teenagers to choose how many bottles of beer to consume each fifteen minutes, whilst giving them periodic feedback on their current blood alcohol level. The simulation had a built in stomach delay of either 22.5 minutes (fairly average for a typical person) or 4.5 minutes.
As the researchers expected, the teenagers massively over-shot the required blood alcohol level, especially when using the simulator with a longer stomach delay. Just as they likely do in real life, the teenagers merely used current feedback of blood alcohol level to inform their decision about how much more to drink. They completely failed to take into account that the blood alcohol level would continue to rise for some time without further intake.
So can youngsters be taught to take account of the stomach delay? A group of students given an advance explanation of the stomach delay performed no better than their peers. However, information about the delay plus the chance to see an advance simulation of the stomach delay (based on a drinking mouse!) did significantly improve the performance of another group, such that they over-shot far less when they completed the simulator challenge.
Moxnes and Jensen said their approach holds great promise - many of their teenage participants reported occasions when they'd gotten far more drunk than they intended, 98 per cent said they found the experiment interesting and 87 per cent said it would make a great teaching tool.
Another implication of these findings it that the folk advice to never go out drinking on an empty stomach may not be so wise after all. It's sensible for people who intend to drink a fixed amount but not for people intending to drink until they reach a desired level of inebriation. "Here we show that it may not be sound advice for inexperienced juveniles that drink according to a simple feedback strategy," the researchers said. "Drinking on a full stomach massively extends the stomach delay, thereby making it much harder to manage one's blood alcohol level."
Moxnes E, & Jensen L (2009). Drunker than intended: misperceptions and information treatments. Drug and alcohol dependence, 105 (1-2), 63-70 PMID: 19625144
Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.