Self-Change in Drinking Behaviors

Social and behavioral processes associated with an existing cohort of black and white emerging adults

There have been substantial increases in heavy drinking (consuming more than 4 drinks in an occasion) and alcohol use disorders (AUD) in the United States over the past decade, and those trends worsened during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Young people ages 18 – 30 (referred to as emerging adults) have higher levels of heavy drinking (36%) and alcohol use disorder (27%) than other age groups, and alcohol misuse is the largest source of morbidity and mortality for young people. Frequent heavy drinking is associated with significant immediate and chronic health and social consequences that can disrupt critical developmental milestones such as completing college and establishing a stable career/family. These disruptions can increase risk for negative outcomes throughout adulthood, making emerging adulthood increasingly understood as a developmental ‘critical period’ that sets the stage for healthy and unhealthy alcohol use across the lifespan.

As a result, we need to identify both the factors that lead emerging adults to drink heavily, and the factors that allows most emerging adults to successfully reduce their alcohol risk as they approach their later twenties. If we understand these factors, we can develop approaches to try to encourage reductions in alcohol risk for young adults. Alcohol prevention approaches are most likely to be successful if they are directly informed by feedback from young people. To address these goals, Professor of Psychology Dr. James Murphy, along with Psychology Research Professor Dr. Ashley Dennhardt and colleagues from McMaster University, Florida State University, and Yale University, recently received a grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) titled “A Qualitative Analysis of Social and Behavioral Processes Associated with Self-Change in Drinking in an Existing Cohort of Black and White Emerging Adults.” This study will extend our previous NIH funded study (Project BETA) that allowed us to recruit and followed a diverse community-based cohort of 601 Memphis area emerging adults beginning in 2017. Project BETA participants are now approximately 30 years old, and they reflect the racial/ethnic and economic diversity of the Memphis community.

Results from Project BETA indicate that experiences of discrimination and lack of assess to rewarding alcohol-free activities were associated with alcohol risk, and that increases in positive alcohol-free activities were associated with reductions in drinking over time. Our new project will conduct detailed individual interviews with a group of 40 Project BETA participants who successfully reduced their drinking, and with a group of 40 participants who continued to drink heavily throughout the original follow-up period. Our trained interviewers will facilitate a discussion of potentially modifiable factors associated with successful change or persistent risky drinking. In addition to gaining an understanding of how participants successfully changed their drinking, our interviews and qualitative analyses will also gain insights into how to design and market prevention and intervention programs to reduce alcohol risk for diverse community-residing emerging adults. We will obtain feedback on preferred intervention content, modalities, and locations/venues. After completing this grant, our team will use the results to help us to develop and refine culturally tailored approaches to reduce alcohol related risk among young adults in Memphis and across the nation. 

For more information on this project, “A Qualitative Analysis of Social and Behavioral Processes Associated with Self-Change in Drinking in an Existing Cohort of Black and White Emerging Adults,” contact Dr. James Murphy, professor in Psychology, at jgmurphy@memphis.edu.