Alcohol is an widely used substance known for contributing to bad decision making, but have you ever wondered why it can have that effect? A study published in Psychopharmacology explores how drinking alcohol may impair consumer’s ability to think about the future, which can cause an inability to understand the consequences of questionable choices made while intoxicated.
Alcohol has a plethora of well-documented side effects, including impairments in memory and changes in executive functioning. Missing from current literature is alcohol’s effect on episodic future thinking, or the ability to imagine a possible future situation. Episodic future thinking is significant when making decisions and deficits in it can cause risky or irresponsible behavior with unwanted or unforeseen outcomes.
Alcohol overconsumption is often related to impulsive decision making, which makes this gap in literature especially important. This study seeks to understand the relationship between alcohol consumption and episodic future thinking.
For their study, Morgan Elliott and colleagues utilized 124 healthy, adult, social drinkers to serve as their sample. Participants were recruited over social networking sites and community advertising. Social drinking was defined as between 2 and 25 units of alcohol weekly for women and 2 to 36 units of alcohol weekly for men.
Participants were asked to abstain from using alcohol or other substances for 24 hours prior to the study. Participants were randomly assigned to either the alcohol or the placebo condition. In the alcohol condition, participants were administered a dose of alcohol that was 0.6g/kg of their body weight, which was moderate intoxication level. All participants completed measures on episodic future thinking, episodic memory, cognitive initiation, inhibitory control, cognitive flexibility, pre-morbid intelligence, and alcohol use.
Results showed that moderate alcohol consumption was related to impairments in episodic future thinking. When asked to describe a future scenario, participants who were in the alcohol condition shared significantly less episodic details. Though participants in both conditions described details about their imagined future event, the types of details differed with condition, with participants in the alcohol condition generating non-episodic details, which can be associated with error.
Additionally, participants in the alcohol condition showed impaired episodic memory more generally, which was associated with impaired episodic future thinking. Surprisingly, however, impairments in executive functioning were not associated with the negative effects of alcohol consumption on episodic future thinking.
This study took steps into linking alcohol consumption with impairment in episodic future thinking. Despite this, there are limitations to note. One such limitation is that it is difficult to keep the alcohol levels stable throughout a period of time, and the alcohol level for participants was lower for the executive function tasks than it was for the episodic tasks. Additionally, future research could explore how mild and high levels of alcohol affect episodic future thinking.
“In conclusion, these data provide the first empirical evidence that even a moderate dose of alcohol is sufficient to produce significant impairment in [episodic future thinking] and shows that these difficulties are related to the effects of acute alcohol consumption on episodic memory, but not executive functioning, and the effects did not vary as a function of biological sex,” the researchers wrote.
“The results of the present study could have important implications for individual decision making and the treatment of individuals with an alcohol use disorder, whilst also potentially furthering our understanding of why deleterious behaviours are so common under the influence of even moderate levels of alcohol.”
The study, “Deficits in episodic future thinking following acute alcohol consumption“, was authored by Morgan Elliott, Gill Terrett, H. Valerie Curran, Natalie De Bono, Peter G. Rendell, and Julie D. Henry.