High Opportunity Cost Demand as an Indicator of Weekday Drinking and Distinctly Severe Alcohol Problems: A Behavioral Economic Analysis


Introduction: Behavioral economic theory views addiction as a reinforcer pathology characterized by excessive demand for drugs relative to alternatives. Complementary to this theory, Lamb and Ginsburg (Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior, 164, 2018, 62) describe addiction as a behavioral allocation disorder and predict that decisions to drink under increasingly stringent constraints are a central indicator of addiction. This study used a modified demand-curve paradigm to examine alcohol demand in the context of a next-day contingency (high opportunity cost demand) as a specific indicator of a severe pattern of alcohol problems. Methods: Participants were 370 undergraduates (61.1% female, 86.5% white, Mage = 18.8) reporting multiple past-month heavy drinking episodes (5/4 drinks per occasion for men/women) who completed 2 versions of an alcohol purchase task (APT), along with measures of past-month alcohol use and problems. In 1 APT (low opportunity cost), students imagined they had no next-day responsibilities, and in the other APT (high opportunity cost), they imagined having a 10:00 am test the next day. Item-response theory analyses were used to determine mild and severe alcohol problems from the Young Adult Alcohol Consequences Questionnaire (Journal of Studies on Alcohol, 67, 2006, 169), and the most and least severe binge drinking days throughout the week. Results: Low opportunity cost demand (β = 0.15, p = 0.02) significantly predicted beyond high opportunity cost demand for the least severe problems, and high opportunity cost demand (β = 0.17, p = 0.009) significantly predicted beyond low opportunity cost demand for the most severe problems. Similarly, low opportunity cost demand (β = 0.26, p < 0.001) was more highly associated with weekend drinking, whereas high opportunity cost demand (β = 0.21, p = 0.001) was more highly associated with weekday drinking. Conclusions: The current results suggest high opportunity cost alcohol demand is a distinct marker of severe alcohol problems among college student heavy drinkers.

Publication Title

Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research