Why do college students really drink alcohol in excess, even if they probably shouldn’t? Addiction researchers have been studying this topic for decades. They’re interested in learning more about alcohol use, the reasons for drinking, and the consequences of heavy drinking. Typically, addiction is studied by having people come into a psychology lab, fill out questionnaires, or maybe do some computerized tasks.
More recently, however, scientists wanted to step out of their offices and understand real-world drinking behavior. But, how do they do that? Picture these scenarios:
Scenario 1: Sally, a recent college graduate, goes out drinking with her friends on Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday. On all of these nights, a team of 8 scientists follows her, documenting the type of alcohol she drinks, keeping track of her alcohol intake, asking her about her motivations, observing her environment, and assessing her overall mood. This team of scientists follows her every move and observes all of her drinking tendencies. They want to learn more about what makes people really drink so much, what else is a scientist going to do?!
This first scenario is obviously unnatural, maybe a little bit uncomfortable, and could even influence Sally’s drinking behavior.
Now, picture this second scenario:
Scenario 2: Sally, a recent college graduate, goes out drinking with her friends on Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday. On all of these nights, she responds to a notification on her mobile phone to confirm “I am drinking tonight.” Throughout the night, she gets a handful of notifications inquiring about the number of drinks she’s had, why she’s drinking, what’s going on in her environment, and her mood. Later, a team of 8 scientists downloads her data over the week to explore commonalities in her behavior and compare her drinking behavior to others in the study.
Most likely, the second scenario sounds more natural, comfortable, and feasible. Sally’s probably checking her phone throughout the night anyways.
This mobile information gathering is the most recent advancement in alcohol research: Ecological Momentary Assessment (EMA). EMA is a term used to describe methods that collect data: 1) in real-time, 2) in a person’s natural environment, and 3) over an extended period of time (sometimes days, sometimes weeks). Usually, EMA is done using people’s smartphones. This is great because everyone already has their phone with them and uses it to manage parts of their lives (e.g., diet, water intake, or keeping track of homework assignments) with mobile apps. Now, scientists are taking advantage of smartphones, too.
In a way, EMA could be the future of daily substance use research. If scientists want to understand what actually happens when people drink, measuring people’s behavior while it’s happening matters. This is what a team of brilliant scientists knew when they conceptualized EMA. EMA research has begun teaching scientists more about drinking behavior than ever before. For example, before scientists were able to collect real-time drinking data, there was a prominent theory that people drink because they want to feel better when they’re sad or down (in simplest terms), which is commonly referred to as ‘self-medicating’. However, recent EMA studies have shown that being down doesn’t consistently predict drinking. In fact, scientists are often finding that feeling good makes people drink (e.g., “I had a great day, let’s get drunk and celebrate!”).
In addition, EMA has examined relationships between drinking and a variety of other factors, such as craving, drug use, and social environment. Because EMA allows for multiple days of data collection per week, researchers have also started trying to understand why folks tend to ‘accidentally’ drink more than they had originally planned to.
Scientists have unearthed new individual differences too. What is an individual difference? Imagine Sally and Ben both drink, on average, 8 drinks a night. In the lab, knowledge would have stopped there. But, with EMA, addiction researchers may also find out that Sally drinks on Tuesday because she’d rather hang out with friends at Kilroy’s than study for tomorrow’s exam. Ben, on the other hand, consistently drinks too much because he loves playing flip cup and beer pong and sometimes gets carried away.
With these new insights, investigators can now learn about individual differences in why people drink. Researchers can discern that Sally is motivated by social environment, whereas Ben is motivated by alcohol itself. Eventually, this information can be used to tailor addiction treatments for Sally, who tends to be more impulsive and influenced by social rewards, and for Ben, who might need some help taking breaks between drinking game rounds – a water bottle or two may even help.
No one wants to party with 8 researchers that are taking notes on their every move (that would be a major buzz kill). Scientists want to help Sally and Ben make smarter drinking choices, and EMA can help them get there. If you’ve ever drank one too many, one day you might use an app that helps you drink a little bit less or keep track of why you’re drinking too much on a Saturday night. These types of apps were likely created thanks to EMA.
If you’re interested in tracking your drinking or even cutting down on drinking using a mobile app, here are some additional resources:
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism resources page: Treatment for Alcohol Problems: Finding and Getting Help | National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA)
- News article with mobile apps to help drinking: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/318913
- User-friendly app to track drinking: https://joinclubsoda.com/drink-less-alcohol-app/