Substance misuse and dependency usually begin in early adolescence. The behavioral approach system (BAS) determines how an individual will respond to stimuli that is either rewarding or punishing. Researchers have long believed that the BAS plays an important role in risk for substance use. To examine the link between BAS sensitivity and substance use, Madelon E. Van Hemel-Ruiter of the Department of Clinical Psychology at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands recently led a study that employed an appetitive task that involved reward and punishment bias and self-reports of substance use among 682 adolescents. The participants were asked about their experience with tobacco, marijuana, and alcohol. All of the teens completed tasks that measured their attentional bias toward reward/nonpunishment or punishment/nonreward.
Van Hemel-Ruiter found that the teens with the highest levels of substance use exhibited more attentional bias toward nonpunishment/reward than those with little or no substance use experience. This was realized in both short delay and long delay tasks, demonstrating the consistency of the results. Additionally, Van Hemel-Ruiter also found that the teens with a history of misuse had a more difficult time shifting their attention away from nonpunishment/reward cues than their non–substance using peers. These findings support other research that has shown a link between attentional bias and substance use in teens.
The results of this study suggest that teens at risk for substance use voluntarily seek reward-generating cues but involuntarily trend toward nonpunishment. This could explain why although teens automatically yearn for things that have little negative outcomes, they voluntarily choose behaviors and activities that bring them rewards, such as drug and alcohol use. The results of this study show that BAS sensitivity and attentional bias are factors that should be explored further. Van Hemel-Ruiter added, “Accordingly, (young) adolescents who show heightened attentional bias toward appetitive stimuli might therefore be at risk for initiating substance use at a younger age and subsequently for developing substance use problems.”
Van Hemel-Ruiter, M. E., de Jong, P. J., Oldehinkel, A. J., Ostafin, B. D. (2012). Reward-related attentional biases and adolescent substance use: The TRAILS Study. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0028271
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