Evaluating Behavioral Economic Models of Heavy Drinking Among College Students


Background: Heavy drinking among college students is a significant public health concern that can lead to profound social and health consequences, including alcohol use disorder. Behavioral economics posits that low future orientation and high valuation of alcohol (alcohol demand) combined with deficits in alternative reinforcement increase the likelihood of alcohol misuse. Despite this, no study has examined the incremental utility of all 3 variables simultaneously in a comprehensive model. Methods: This study uses structural equation modeling to test the associations between behavioral economic variables—alcohol demand (latent), future orientation (measured with a delay discounting task and the Consideration of Future Consequences [CFC] scale), and proportionate substance-related reinforcement—and alcohol consumption and problems among 393 heavy drinking college students. Two models are tested as follows: (i) an iteration of the reinforcer pathology model that includes an interaction between future orientation and alcohol demand; and (ii) an alternative model evaluating the interconnectedness of behavioral economic variables in predicting problematic alcohol use. Results: The interaction effects in Model 1 were nonsignificant. Model 2 suggests that greater alcohol demand and proportionate substance-related reinforcement are associated with greater alcohol consumption and problems. Furthermore, CFC was associated with alcohol-related problems and lower proportionate substance-related reinforcement but was not significantly associated with alcohol consumption or alcohol demand. Finally, greater proportionate substance-related reinforcement was associated with greater alcohol demand. Conclusions: Our results support the validity of the behavioral economic reinforcer pathology model as applied to young adult heavy drinking.

Publication Title

Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research