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Words, Combined with Beliefs, Can Activate Behaviors Associated with Drinking, says MU Researchers

April 19, 2007

Story Contact:  Bryan Daniels, 573-882-9144,

COLUMBIA, Mo. — Even if a person hasn't consumed alcohol, certain words trigger behaviors associated with drinking. In a recent study, University of Missouri-Columbia researchers examined how alcohol-related words like “drunk” influence people who have specific beliefs about the effects of drinking.

The study included two experiments — one focusing on the belief that drinking alcohol reduces tension and the other that it facilitates aggression. Researchers Denis McCarthy and Bruce Bartholow, both assistant professors of psychological sciences in the MU College of Arts and Science, and Ronald S. Friedman, who teaches at the University of Albany, discovered that words about or related to the subject of drinking are indeed powerful.

“The purpose of this study is to understand how people's behavior can be influenced in ways they're not even aware of,” Bartholow said. “For example, imagine a person at a bar who isn't even drinking. That person is surrounded by alcohol-related advertising signs, other people drinking or just talking about drinking, and these cues can affect their behavior in subtle ways that are related to alcohol use.”

To analyze tension reduction, the researchers tested the willingness of 76 participants to meet and interact with a stranger of the opposite sex under stressful circumstances. Before the meeting, the participants completed a survey about their drinking habits and beliefs. They were separated into two groups. Using a computer, half were exposed to alcohol-related words in a subliminal manner; the other half viewed words not associated with drinking. Results revealed:

There was less apprehension about meeting the stranger for those who were exposed to alcohol-related words and believed that drinking reduces stress. Bartholow said this pattern suggests that subjects exposed to alcohol words and who believe that alcohol is linked with tension-reduction displayed less tension. He also said degree of willingness to meet under relatively stressful circumstances correlated with how strongly the participant believed in the effect of alcohol on stress.

There was no effect by those exposed to words not associated with drinking.

The experiment on aggression was conducted in the same manner, but examined the belief that drinking increases expressed hostility. Participants were (mildly) provoked by the experimenter, and then given an opportunity to “get back” at the experimenter by submitting a bad evaluation to the experimenter's supervisor.

The findings were similar. Those who believed drinking facilitates aggression and viewed the alcohol-related words showed greater hostility toward the experimenter. Participants exposed to non-alcohol words experienced no effect.

McCarthy said findings from both experiments apply to a host of beliefs about the effects of drinking — including sexual behavior.

“With the data, it's possible a lot of behaviors are affected by activating the thought of alcohol in your mind,” he said. “It's different for different people.”

The study, “Interactive Effects of Alcohol Outcome Expectancies and Alcohol Cues on Nonconsumptive Behavior,” was published in the March issue of Experimental and Clinical Psychopharmacology.