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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