Relations between heavy drinking, gender, and substance-free reinforcement


Behavioral economic theory and laboratory research have suggested that substance abuse may be associated with diminished engagement in enjoyable substance-free activities (substance-free reinforcement). However, college students, in particular men, have reported numerous social benefits from drinking that might mitigate the expected inverse relation between drinking and substance-free reinforcement. In this study, we examined the relations between college student heavy drinking, gender, and several categories of substance-free reinforcement (peer, dating, sexual, school, and family activities). Participants were 246 undergraduate students who were classified as a function of their reported frequency of heavy drinking during a typical week in the past month (120 heavy drinkers, 126 light drinkers). Heavy drinking was associated with significantly higher substance-free peer and sexual reinforcement. This association was gender invariant and remained significant in multiple regression models that controlled for gender, ethnicity, and fraternity or sorority membership. Substance-free reinforcement did not predict frequency of heavy drinking in models that included levels of substance-related reinforcement. The results indicate that college student heavy drinking is not associated with global deficits in substance-free reinforcement and is instead associated with increased peer and sexual activity that occurs outside the context of drinking or drug use. Prevention programs should help students to compensate for the potential loss of social reinforcement associated with reductions in drinking. © 2010 American Psychological Association.

Publication Title

Experimental and Clinical Psychopharmacology