New Study Explores Cravings in Recovering Alcoholics and Social Drinkers

The Stroop task is a commonly used tool in assessing attentional bias, the tendency to focus attention toward a specific cue. In the study of alcoholism, Stroop tasks have demonstrated that alcoholics have an attentional bias toward alcohol-related cues. But a recent study suggests that this may depend on the level of craving experienced by the alcoholic. Matt Field of the University of Liverpool recently compared the attentional bias of 26 social drinkers to 28 participants who had just finished an outpatient program for alcohol addiction. Field wanted to find out if the level of cravings experienced by the alcoholic participants would influence their bias in the tasks.

All of the participants completed three different-length visual probe experiments and an alcohol Stroop task. They also were asked to report their levels of dependency and cravings for alcohol. Field discovered that the alcoholic participants, despite abstaining from alcohol, had a significant level of bias toward the alcohol-related cues when compared to social drinkers. When he assessed the data from the visual tasks, Field found that craving was a clear indicator of bias. In particular, the alcoholic/abstinent participants with high levels of cravings had the highest levels of bias. The low-craving alcohol/abstinent participants and the social drinkers had similar biases, which were weak in comparison to high-craving alcoholic participants.

Field also realized that some of the alcoholic participants dropped out from treatment as a direct result of subjective cravings for alcohol, in addition to severe dependency. Although there has been abundant research in the area of bias and addiction, this study is among the first to compare bias in social drinkers and alcoholics. Field chose social drinkers over nondrinkers because he wanted to minimize the effect novelty of alcohol-related cues might have had on nondrinking participants. However, including nondrinkers in this type of experiment could provide additional insight into the relationship between cravings and alcohol dependency. “These results clarify the importance of subjective craving as a correlate of attentional biases in abstinent alcoholics,” Field said.

Field, M., Mogg, K., Mann, B., Bennett, G. A., Bradley, B. P. (2012). Attentional biases in abstinent alcoholics and their association with craving. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0029626

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  • Vanessa


    September 7th, 2012 at 1:39 PM

    Old habits die hard,eh? Even after an outpatient program the former addicts still seem to have attentional bias towards alcohol. WHile this is an expected thing I would love to see how this attentional bias decreases over time. Maybe they could conduct the same test with the same participants after a gap of a few months?

  • Roman


    September 7th, 2012 at 2:35 PM

    My uncle just recently stopped drinking and he claims to have no desire for alcohol anymore, but I swear he has probably gained 20 pounds because he says he can’t stop craving candy now. Is this normal? I mean, he put away the beer just fine but now he wants to go into sugar overload!

  • dot


    September 8th, 2012 at 5:19 AM

    @ Roman- it’s all about the sugar

    alcohol breaks down into sugar in the body so that’s probably what he’s still craving

  • ryan


    September 8th, 2012 at 9:49 AM

    I hope none of the participants in the study took to drinking after this? All that de-addiction would be a waste then ;)

    But yeah, it takes more work than just staying physically away from your addiction, there is mind games to be won and a habit to be overcome. not an easy task but nor is it an impossible one!

  • Molly


    September 9th, 2012 at 2:25 PM

    So what craving are we talking about here?Is it that physical body craves for alcohol or is it all in the mind? Is there nothing yet,after all the advancements of modern science,that cravings for such substances could be controlled?!

  • Nona


    September 10th, 2012 at 10:52 AM

    I think that for many addicts, as I know that this happens with me and my food addiction problems, there are certain situations that you find yourself in that can lead to over doing it even when your intentions at the outset were good and admirable. There are just certain times that might cue you to drink or eat or whatever, and it may just be certain friends. But as an addict you have to become aware of what these social cues are and many times you have to take great pains to even stop yourself from being in those settings.

  • Bennet


    September 11th, 2012 at 12:40 PM

    Very useful in the treatment of those who very specifically have cravings when they encounter things that automantically would lend them to drinking out of control. A large part of my own recovery was becoming aware when I would have these specific cravings and how to then distance myself from those emotional triggers which would lead me out of control. Learning what those were and developing a sense of control over those gave me a feeling of empowerment that I can honestly say that I had never felt before in adulthood and gave me a reason to want to succeed and become an alcohol success story and not just naother drunk who continuously fell off the wagon.

  • Suz


    September 11th, 2012 at 1:56 PM

    How are you defining craving? As an overwhleming phenomena that cannot be controlled? Or as simply paying more attention than a non-alchoolic to alcohol-related stimuli? It only makes sense that an alcoholic would notice alcohol cues more though it does not make sense to me that ntoice/awareness is the same as craving. Is that not why people go to AA in order to help redirect their thinking BEFORE it turns into a craving?

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