Do People Who Misuse Alcohol Take More Risks?

According to a new study, people who reported having problems with alcohol are actually more risk averse than their non-using counterparts. James R. Ashenhurst, J. David Jentsch, and Lara A. Ray, of the University of California, Los Angeles, enlisted 152 self-reported heavy drinkers, who were neither in treatment nor diagnosed with a psychological problem, for a study to assess the relationship of risky behavior taking in people with alcohol use disorders (AUD). The participants were all between the ages of 21 and 65 and reported consuming a minimum of 48 drinks each month. At baseline, nearly three quarters of the participants were categorized as being alcohol dependent, while over 15 percent had symptoms that placed them at risk for alcohol dependence. The correlation of risky behavior and AUD is significant because “Risk taking reflects the ability of an individual to weigh costs and benefits during decision-making with potentially negative outcomes.”

The participants performed the Balloon Analogue Risk Task (BART), which required them to inflate a balloon for a monetary reward, with the risk of overinflating, resulting in a balloon pop which yielded no money. They had to determine how much risk they would take in order to receive the reward. Throughout 72 separate trials, the participants exploded their balloons an average of just over 17 times. Contrary to previous studies, the findings in this study revealed that those with AUD exhibited more conservative behaviors. The researchers also adjusted for IQ and age, and believe that these two specific factors had a significant impact on their findings. “Together, these results suggest that among individuals with AUD, higher risk-taking propensity, measured by the BART, is associated with lower symptom count, but that IQ and age account for a substantial proportion of the variance in BART performance and ultimately mediate this association,” said the team. “Thus, to fully understand the relationship between risk-taking and AUD symptomatology, age and IQ must be taken into account.”

Ashenhurst, J. R., Jentsch, J. D., & Ray, L. A. (2011, June 27). Risk-Taking and Alcohol Use Disorders Symptomatology in a Sample of Problem Drinkers. Experimental and Clinical Psychopharmacology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0024412

© Copyright 2011 by By John Smith, therapist in Bellingham, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Albie


    August 8th, 2011 at 8:23 PM

    Interesting study.It is bound to help people know more about effects of heavy drinking.Educative stuff.

  • Carol Cann, MA, LCPC, CADC

    Carol Cann, MA, LCPC, CADC

    August 8th, 2011 at 10:45 PM

    This is a pretty narrow definition of risk. The way the article describes it, the people actually do not lose anything if they pop the balloon — they just do not receive a reward. It would have been more of the kind of risk we are used to thinking about if they had to forfeit something if the balloon was overinflated. In this exercise, exploding the balloon had no real negative consequence — that is, not much risk.

  • ian d

    ian d

    August 9th, 2011 at 4:03 AM

    so was this study conducted while these individuals were sober or what? because I don’t think the risk taking ability is any higher than normal if the individual is sober at that point of time.but if not,then that is a completely different issue.

  • Dale


    August 9th, 2011 at 4:37 AM

    I am normally not a risk taker but back in the day when I drank a whole lot, I know that I participated in a lot riskier behavior then I ever would now or even would have then if I had been sober.

  • sandy


    August 9th, 2011 at 11:18 AM

    do v really need a study for all this?aren’t all d road accidents n things committed by drunk drivers enough 2 prove it?!

  • Jesse


    August 10th, 2011 at 4:45 AM

    I agree with Sandy. I think that this is a pretty pointless study given that I think that most of us already know and have learned over the years that abusing alcohol typically is not going to lead to the wisest behavioral choices. I am not sure that you are going to find too many people out there, drunk or not, who are going to diagree with that. I know that it is important to continue to relay this message but at times it feels a little stale

  • JJ Holtz

    JJ Holtz

    September 27th, 2011 at 4:51 PM

    I don’t think alcoholics as whole being more open to taking risk should even be questioned.

    First of all alcoholics are under the influence frequently which would easily impair their ability to reason and be responsible with risks (like deciding to get into a car a drive).

    Secondly, the fact that they misuse alcohol means that they are taking a risk greater than one that the average guy or gal would. Binge drinking or whatever misuse they engage in has been well documented about the adverse health effects so their ability to ignore this makes them 10 times less interested in safety.

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