A study of twenty-five adults (12 men and 13 women) examined whether drinkers looking at alcohol-related stimuli had impeded auditory senses. The researchers theorized that drinkers looking at alcohol-related images would not respond as readily to auditory signals. The researchers believed that the attentional bias for visual cues among drinkers would affect their other senses negatively. In order to test this, they asked the participants, in a laboratory setting, to look at 30 images and listen to 20 one-second audio clips. The images included 10 alcohol-related images, 10 neutral images of office supplies, and 10 other neutral images. The audio included brief sounds like a bell ringing and cat meowing. The participants went through 300 trials in which they experienced a visual-audio stimulus for one second and responded (as instructed) to either the alcohol-related images or the neutral images. They also had to respond to auditory stimulus. These participants were between the ages of 21 and 33 and almost entirely Caucasian (16 out of 25). They filled out questionnaires about their drinking habits prior to the beginning of the trials. (Monem, Fillmore).

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The researchers concluded from the results of the trials that their hypothesis was correct and “attentional bias to alcohol images disrupted the ability to process accompanying auditory information” (Monem, Fillmore, 15). There was a greater bias for alcohol-related images than neutral images. In addition, the alcohol-related images were found to inhibit participants’ abilities to focus on auditory stimulus. However, the researchers did not find a correlation between drinking habits and attentional bias. Overall, they saw a general decline in the ability to process information if there were alcohol-related stimuli present. They further predicted that this attentional bias for alcohol-related images could make it more difficult for drinkers to abstain for alcohol or reduce their consumption. Alcohol will be more on the mind of people who are already drinkers and therefore they will have difficulty paying attention to other stimuli that are not alcohol-related. The researchers compared this to images of food, that produce a similar effect. Alcohol and food both dominant the visual senses when they are present and cause people to exclude other stimuli. (Monem, Fillmore).

The study builds positively on past research about the topic of alcohol and visual bias. Past studies have looked at how drinkers spend more time looking at alcohol-related images compared to neutral images and how this visual bias could contribute to alcohol use. Those studies focused more on how visual bias could promote continued alcohol use and make it difficult for drinkers to decide to cut back on alcohol use or abstain altogether. This study takes a positive step in that it builds on that research with new insights about how and why visual cues make it difficult for drinkers to moderate their alcohol intake. It provided important insights into how visual bias excludes other types of stimuli and makes alcohol a dominating stimuli. This is important as it could help pave the way for new insights into how to help people who are struggling with alcohol addiction since the study implies a new reason for why people become addicted.

In addition, the study did well to point out the connection between alcohol and food. The researchers noted how the visual bias they observed related to alcohol was similar to the similar bias that exists for food. Both functions are “appetitive” in that they create a bias for visual stimuli to the exclusion of other stimuli. Both food and alcohol have a similar effect, especially for people deprived of food or alcohol. This could point to another reason people become addicted or have trouble reducing alcohol intake. As they reduce alcohol intake, they may become more and more attuned to visual stimuli related to alcohol, according to this study. That will make their battle to stop using alcohol or even just use it less even more difficult. The study shows that alcohol-related stimuli can create a visual bias that is not only alluring but also disruptive. Visual bias for alcohol among drinkers can disrupt behavior control (such as abstaining from drinking) and make it more difficult to deal with an addiction or overuse of alcohol.

However, the study fails in some regards, particularly in sampling size and the participants who were available. The experiment included only 25 participants, an extremely small sample size. Given the huge scope of the problem of alcohol addiction, this sample size seems inadequate. In a country with millions of drinkers, studying just 25 is not a sufficient number of people to use to draw general conclusions about the broader population of drinkers. Those 25 drinkers may represent something that is generally true about some drinkers, but it would be irresponsible to look at some a small sample size and draw conclusions about all or even most drinkers.

In addition, the age range was very narrow. Participants were only 21 to 33. That is a very small and particular range of ages for drinkers. These are younger drinkers who may not have been drinking for very long. They may be drinking more heavily at this point in their lives – or, indeed, less heavily – because they are relatively new to alcohol. This population is certainly not representative of the broader range of drinkers in the country, who may be much, much older, and potentially even younger. Younger populations drinking illegally obviously would not be ethical to include in a study, but certainly older drinkers should have been included. Middle-aged and older people who drink could have added a lot to this study. It is possible that attention changes or visual cues are more or less captivating as people age. Older people may react totally differently to visual and auditory cues. The sample is also not representative of the general population of drinkers in that it is primarily Caucasian (16 out of 25). More racial diversity would have provided a more representative sample of the population of drinkers in the country.

In order to fix this, follow-up studies could repeat the same experiment but with a larger population of participants from a broader range of racial backgrounds and ages. A broader range of ages, in particular, would be helpful for verifying the results of this study. The study is promising and could provide important insights into the mechanisms of addiction, but a larger, more representative sample of the population of drinkers would be necessary in order to verify these findings.

  • Monem, R. G., & Fillmore, M. T. (2016). Alcohol-Related Visual Cues Impede the Ability to Process Auditory Information: Seeing but Not Hearing. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 30(1), 12