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Effects of alcohol on rotary pursuit performance: a gender comparison.

Survey of the existing literature reporting the effects of alcohol on psychomotor and cognitive skills illustrates a substantial deficit in research using women as subjects compared to men. Lex (1991) suggested that this neglect has been primarily a function of widely held erroneous beliefs that sociocultural factors protect females from developing alcohol abuse and that alcohol abuse is similar in men and women. Research, however, indicates that age of onset, development and symptoms of alcoholism, and detrimental physiological effects are different for men and women. This underscores an increased need for research investigating the physiological and behavioral effects of alcohol in women (e.g., Dougherty, Cherek, & Bennett., 1995; Galanter, 1995; Lex, 1991).

A particular area in which women have been neglected as research subjects has been the study of the effects of alcohol on psychomotor and behavioral tasks and tolerance to the effects of alcohol on these tasks across repeated trials. Tolerance is observed as a decrease in the effect, whereas sensitization is evidenced by an increase in the effect on the measured response. Tolerance has been observed more readily and has been researched much more extensively than sensitization (Bennett, 1992; Newlin & Thompson, 1991). Tolerance can be described in two ways: (1) Chronic tolerance is observed as a decrease in the magnitude of an effect of alcohol with repeated exposures; and (2) acute tolerance is observed within the course of the elimination of a single exposure and is characterized by a reduced alcohol effect on the descending limb of the breath alcohol concentration curve (BAC) when compared to the ascending limb.

The lack of data comparing alcohol effects on psychomotor tasks in male and female social drinkers suggests that a concerted effort in this area is warranted. For example, Cherpitel (1996) recently reported gender differences in proportions of different types of alcohol-associated injuries (such as falls) among emergency room patients. Inasmuch as no significant gender differences in rates of alcohol consumption were reported in an earlier survey of emergency room patients admitted for unintentional alcohol-related injuries (Cherpitel, 1994), of interest is evaluating gender differences in acute alcohol-induced decrement in motor functioning (especially repeated exposure effects) to help clarify such findings.

In previous study of gender differences in alcohol effects, Niaura, Nathan, Frankenstein, Shapiro, and Brick (1987) found no gender differences in the effect of a single moderate bolus of alcohol on a rotary pursuit task. In contrast, the study presented here directly compares the effects of higher alcohol doses on a rotary pursuit task using a cumulative dosing procedure. Cumulative dosing was implemented in favor of a larger single dose in order to simulate natural drinking behavior and to result in greater peak intoxication than examined previously (Niaura et al., 1987). Moreover, subjects were given two exposures to cumulative alcohol dosing, and dosage was adjusted for female subjects to attain similar peak breath alcohol concentrations to their male counterparts. Measurements were made along the ascending and descending limbs of the BAC curves and compared. Specific questions of interest in this study were: (1) Is acute tolerance to the behavioral effects of alcohol evidenced similarly in females and males? and (2) would a second day of alcohol exposure have a differential outcome on the alcohol effect between male and female subjects.


Subject Recruitment

Using newspaper advertisement for "social drinkers," we recruited 10 men and 10 women ages 22 to 39. Callers who reported drinking six or more alcoholic beverages per week and who reported no current psychiatric problems or medical problems were invited to visit the laboratory for an on-site interview. Once at the laboratory, applicants underwent a structured clinical interview (SCID-NP; Spitzer, Williams, Gibbon, & First, 1988) to determine whether they met DSM-III-R (APA, 1987) criteria for any mental illness and/or substance use disorder. In addition, subjects completed a medical questionnaire, on which they self-reported current alcohol use in terms of a specified number of drinks per day or week, where a "drink" was defined as 12 oz of beer, 4 oz of wine, or 1 oz of liquor or a mixed drink. Applicants who currently met DSM-III-R criteria for any psychoactive substance use disorder or other psychiatric illness or who self-reported significant medical problems were excluded. Past psychiatric illness or a substance use disorder in remission was not an exclusion criterion. The study was described as a study of the effects of alcohol on motor performance and informed consent was obtained. To encourage subjects to perform as well as possible on the rotary pursuit task, a portion of subject payment was contingent on rotary pursuit task performance. With the addition of flat rate bonus payment for punctuality and study completion, subjects earned a total of approximately $50.00 per day. All psychometric instruments, consent forms, and methods were approved by the University's Internal Review Board.

Subject Demographics

Mean ages of male and female subjects were 31.4 [+ or -] (SD) 5.9, and 30.7 [+ or -] 5.4, respectively. Mean subject weights were 82.7 [+ or -]12.9 kg for men and 69.7 [+ or -] 9.8 kg for women. The racial composition of subjects was as follows: Men: African-American (n = 5), Hispanic (n = 4), Caucasian (n = 1). Women: African-American (n = 4), Hispanic (n = 1), Caucasian (n = 5). The average number of years of alcohol consumption was 14.8 [+ or -] (SD) 5.1 for males and 13 [+ or -] 5.9 for females. Male subjects reported drinking a median of 15.5 drinks per week, whereas female subjects drank a median of 10.0 drinks per week. Finally, male subjects reported having consumed alcohol for an average of 14.8 [+ or -] 5.1 years, and female subjects reported having consumed alcohol for 13.0 [+ or -] 5.9 years. Independent t tests indicated that male subjects were significantly heavier than female subjects, but that gender differences in age, years of alcohol consumption, or drinks per week were not significant.

Beverage Administration

Beverages were administered by a research assistant blind to the drink's content. Subjects were allowed 15 rain to consume each drink. Following ingestion of each beverage, subjects subjectively rated its "shot" equivalent and expected degree of intoxication on two, 0-10 point scales on a questionnaire. On the placebo days (Days 3 and 5, see below), subjects received three beverages, each consisting of 240 ml of lemon-lime soda pop with peppermint flavoring and 1 ml alcohol dispensed along the inner brim of the paper cup in order to provide an illusory "bouquet." On alcohol dose days (Days 4 and 6, see below), subjects received three beverages, each containing 0.35 g/kg of 95% alcohol (including the 1 ml dispensed along the brim) brought to a 240 ml volume with lemon-lime soda pop and peppermint flavoring. In order to achieve similar peak breath alcohol content levels (BACs) between men and women, dosage for female subjects was calculated based on 92% of body weight (Hindmarch, Keff, & Sherwood, 1991).

Rotary Pursuit

The rotary pursuit task was performed on a Photoelectric Rotary Pursuit Apparatus (Model 32534, Lafayette Instruments, Inc.). The apparatus consisted of a wand connected by a cord to a turntable-like base unit, which was placed on a tabletop. The base unit emitted a 2-cm x 2-cm light source beneath a clear glass top in a circular pattern with a radius of 13 cm at 30 revolutions per minute. The tip of the wand was bent at 90 [degrees] from the long (handle) axis and contained a photoreceptive cell. The subject was instructed to maintain the tip of the wand over the circling light source as long as possible without the tip of the wand contacting the glass surface of the base unit. Subjects were reminded that a portion of their payment was a function of their performance. Each session lasted 120 s, and a stop-clock apparatus connected to the base unit tabulated cumulative seconds of photocell contact with the circling light source. Subjects performed the task while standing in front of the base unit opposite the experimenter and were unable to see the stop clock readout. However, a tone sounded while contact was being maintained, providing feedback to the subject.

Testing Schedule

The study lasted for 6 days, with six performance sessions scheduled across each day. Subjects remained in a TV lounge between sessions, and a standard diet was provided consisting of a 100 g bagel at 0815 hr and a lunch at 1215 hr. On each day, subjects arrived at the laboratory at 0800 hr, and breath and urine samples were obtained to ensure no alcohol or drug use. Breath alcohol concentration (BAC) levels were determined in this study with an Alco-Sensor III (Intoximeters, Inc; St. Louis, Mo). The presence of drugs in urine (determined by the EMIT d.a.u. immunoassay) resulted in removal of the subject from study. Presence of alcohol in the breath sample resulted in the removal of the subject for the day. On each day of the study, subjects underwent a single rotary pursuit testing session at each of the following six times: 0900 hr, 1000 hr, 1100 hr, 1200 hr, 1400 hr, and 1600 hr. At 1615 hr, subjects were evaluated by staff, paid, and released for the day.

The first 2 days of the study were a training period, when subjects performed the rotary pursuit task across the day with no beverage ingestion. On the 2nd day, subjects also underwent a physical examination at the research clinic, at which time subjects were weighed. On each subsequent day, subjects received either three placebo drinks or three 0.35g/kg alcohol drinks. Beverages were administered after the first (baseline) rotary pursuit session, and after the second and third sessions - at 0915 hr, 1015 hr, and 1115 hr, respectively. This allowed 45 min for alcohol absorbtion prior to the next testing session. Prior to each rotary pursuit session, BAC levels were obtained. The daily regimen was as follows:

Day 1: Training Day 2: Training Day 3: Placebos Day 4: Alcohol doses Day 5: Placebos Day 6: Alcohol doses

Data Analysis

Data are represented both as total seconds of contact time in each session as well as expressed on alcohol days as the decreases of photocell contact (performance decrement) compared to the subject's contact time recorded in the pre-alcohol baseline session. BAC and performance values were compared across sessions using multifactorial repeated-measures ANOVAs with time of day and alcohol administration day (Day 4 vs. Day 6) as the repeated measures, and gender as the between-groups factor. A separate repeated-measures ANOVA was also used to compare expected intoxication rating and performance decrements at peak alcohol conditions. Within-day BAC levels for each gender were compared using paired t tests (Sessions 2 vs. 6 and 3 vs. 5), and peak BAC values were compared between men and women using independent t tests. Regression analyses were used to examine the effects of expected intoxication and BAC values on performance decrement. Finally, peak performance decrement was related to self-reported alcohol use using Pearson correlation.


Overview and Placebo Effects

In addition to the 20 subjects who completed the study, 3 women and 2 men were also recruited but dismissed for presence of drugs in urine. Rotary pursuit performance on the 2 placebo days was systematically examined using a repeated-measures ANOVA, with session (1-6) and day (Day 3 vs. 5) as the within-group factors and gender as the between-group factor. This revealed no main effect of gender on rotary pursuit performance, F(1, 18) = 1.628, p = .218, and a slight but nonsignificant increase in performance following the first session of the day, F(5, 90) = 2.058, p = .078. There was, however, a significant effect of repeated testing (practice) in that mean contact time measured during placebo day sessions increased from 106.8 s ([+ or -] SD 12.0) on Day 3 to 108.9 s ([+ or -] 10.2) on Day 5 (main effect of day, F(1, 18) = 7.124, p = .016. The Day x Gender interaction indicated that men and women benefited from practice nearly equally, F(1, 18) = 0.00, p = .996.

BAC Values

As shown in Figure 1, BAC values on each of the two dose days reached their peak prior to the fourth rotary pursuit session, after all three beverage administrations. The multifactorial repeated-measures ANOVA revealed a significant main effect of time (hourly alcohol doses) on BAC levels, F(5, 90) = 101.59, p [less than] .001. The main effect of gender revealed a trend toward higher BACs in female subjects, F(1, 18) = 4.02, p = .06. There was no main effect of day of alcohol administration (Day 4 vs. Day 6) on BAC, F(1, 18) = 2.839, p = .109, nor was there a significant Day x Gender interaction, F(1, 18) = 0.976, p = .336. The peak BAC values between men and women were similar on both Day 4 (women: 0.11%, men: 0.10%; t(18) = 0.38, p = .71) and Day 6 (women: 0.12%, men: 0.11%; t(18) = 1.05, p = .31. Paired t tests indicated that on both alcohol dose days, there were no differences in BAC between Session 2 and Session 6 or between Session 3 and Session 5 for either men or women [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]. These similarities in BAC values suggested that comparison of performance at Sessions 2 and 6 and comparison of performance at Sessions 3 and 5 was appropriate for examination of acute tolerance.

Rotary Pursuit Performance-General Intoxication Effects

A multifactorial repeated-measures ANOVA was performed comparing rotary pursuit contact times obtained on the two alcohol administration days. The time (session) of day and day of administration were within-group factors and gender was a between-group factor. This revealed significant main effects of session (time of day), F(5, 90) = 30.59, p [less than] .01, and gender, F(1, 18) = 5.15, p [less than] 04, suggesting that in contrast to placebo, cumulative alcohol administration significantly decreased time of contact in the rotary pursuit task for both men and women, but that the rotary pursuit performance of women was more adversely affected. In addition, there was a main effect of day of alcohol administration on rotary pursuit performance across all subjects, F(1, 18) = 5.07, p [less than] .04. This indicated a slight tolerance to the effect of alcohol on rotary performance from on the second day of alcohol administration (Day 6) compared to the first (Day 4), and there was a trend for this tolerance to be specific to men in that the Time x Gender x Day interaction was nearly significant, F(5, 90) = 2.15, p [less than] .07.

Rotary Pursuit Performance-Peak Intoxication Effects

A separate repeated-measures ANOVA of Session 4 performance decrement was performed in order to focus on peak intoxication effects. Here, the day of alcohol administration was the single within-group factor and gender was the between-group factor. This indicated no significant main effects of day, F(1, 18) = 0.85, p = .37 or gender, F(1, 18) = 1.66, p = .21. However, the Day x Gender interaction was significant, F(1, 18) = 9.60, p [less than] .01, and suggested that male subjects developed some tolerance to the effects of peak alcohol intoxication on performance from Day 4 to Day 6, whereas women developed some sensitivity to peak alcohol effects.

Rotary Pursuit Performance-Acute Tolerance

To calculate the alcohol-induced performance decrements, the rotary pursuit contact times during each of post-drink Sessions 2-6 were subtracted from the contact time of that day's baseline session (1). Mean alcohol-induced performance decrements are shown in Figure 2. Paired t tests of performance decrements provided no evidence of acute tolerance to alcohol in that performance decrements during Session 2 were not different from those of Session 6 for either men or women. Similarly, there were no differences in performance decrement between Sessions 3 and 5 for either gender. This was true for both dose days.

Self-Reported Alcohol Use and Performance Decrement

Pearson correlation (n = 20) detected no relationships between self-reported weekly alcohol consumption and peak alcohol-induced performance decrement on either Day 4 (Pearson r = .203, p = .390) or Day 6 (r = .017, p = .944). Similarly, there was no relationship between years of alcohol consumption and peak performance decrement on Day 4 (r = .333, p = .177) or Day 6 (r = .035, p = .890).

Drink Ratings

Subjects provided numerical ratings of both the "shot equivalent" and the expected degree of intoxication on 0-10 scales. The results indicate that subjects generally rated the placebo drinks as containing at least one full "shot" worth of alcohol as well as providing some degree of intoxication. These two ratings were separately analyzed with repeated-measures analyses of variance, with session (beverages 1-3) and dose (placebo vs. 0.35 g/kg alcohol) as within-subject factors, and gender as a between-group factor. These indicated that subjects rated the Day 4 alcohol doses as having greater alcohol content, F(1, 18) = 6.676, p = .019, and causing greater intoxication, F(1, 18) = 18.939, p [less than] .001, than placebo drinks administrated on Day 3. Similarly, subjects rated the Day 6 doses as having greater alcohol content, F(1, 18) = 6.135, p = .023), and causing greater intoxication, F(1, 18) = 20.766, p [less than] .001, than placebo drinks administrated on Day 5. There were no significant main effects or interactions of gender.

To focus on the effect of repeated administration, peak expected intoxication ratings (after the third 0.35 g/kg beverage) were compared between Day 4 and Day 6 using an ANOVA, which indicated that main effects of gender and day of administration were not significant. However, the Gender x Day interaction was significant, F(1, 18) = 8.331, p = .01, indicating that although men self-reported less expected intoxication when consuming the second series of alcohol doses compared to the first, women reported greater intoxication from the second series of doses than they did the first.

Expectancy, BAC, and Performance Decrement

These gender-specific changes in alcohol expectancy across the two alcohol administrations reflected the observed gender-specific performance decrements. However, regression analyses indicated only mild, nonsignificant relationships between self-reported expected intoxication and performance decrement. Rather, these analyses revealed a strong relationship between BAC levels and performance only on the initial exposure day, but not the second. In each regression, Session 4 performance decrement (difference in contact time from prealcohol baseline) was the dependent variable, and self-reported anticipated intoxication following the third drink (expectancy) and Session 4 BAC were the independent variables. On Day 4, expectancy and BAC together accounted for most (55%) of the variance in performance decrement, F(2, 17) = 10.437, p = .001, with a high partial correlation between BAC and performance decrement of .674, t(17) = 4.151, p [less than] .001, and a trend toward a correlation between expectancy and decrement of .307, t(17) = 1.89, p = .076. On Day 6, however, expectancy and BAC accounted for only 21% of the variance in performance decrement, F(2, 17) = 2.292, p = .131, neither of which had a significant partial correlation with performance decrement (Expectancy r = .367, t(17) = 1.62, p = .122; BAC r = .188, t(17) = .836, p = .415). The Day 4 and Day 6 regression analyses were repeated for each gender separately and indicated no gender differences, with a significant partial correlation found only between BAC and decrement on Day 4 for both men, r = .691, t(7) = 2.92, p = .022, and women, r = .729, t(7) = 2.50, p = .041.


The cumulative dosing procedure used in this study provided an opportunity to conduct performance testing at consistent times of the day which corresponded to low, moderate, and high levels of alcohol intoxication. Using this technique, we failed to find any evidence of acute tolerance to the effect of alcohol on rotary pursuit performance in either men or women. In both genders, mean rotary pursuit contact time suffered after consumption of the first 0.35 g/kg beverage (which resulted in mean BAC of .03 and above). The effect of BAC on performance was consistent, whether the BAC was in the process of rising at the time of testing (Sessions 2 and 3 in the morning), or whether it was falling (Sessions 5 and 6 in the afternoon).

Of particular interest is that upon a second exposure to the three alcohol doses, men seemed to develop some tolerance to the effects of alcohol on performance at BAC values greater than 0.10, whereas women developed some sensitivity. To our knowledge, this has not been previously reported. Mild relationships between expectancy and performance decrement were detected in that women expected greater intoxication following the second series of three 0.35 g/kg alcohol drinks compared to the first series and concomitantly performed worse on the rotary pursuit task, whereas men predicted lower intoxication following the second series of alcohol doses and performed better while intoxicated the second time. Specific correlations between expectancy self-rating and performance impairment may have reached significance with a larger sample size. Moreover, performance decrements during the second alcohol intoxication period were not specifically related to BAC values, suggesting that gender-specific behavioral changes during the second alcohol administration may have been largely due to some behavioral factor as opposed to changes in alcohol pharmacokinetics.

In general, alcohol affected the performance of women to a greater degree than men in that the main effect of gender on rotary pursuit contact times was significant on alcohol administration days, whereas no gender differences were observed on placebo days. Niaura et al. (1987) reported no gender differences in rotary pursuit task performance under alcohol conditions. Their study, however, featured only a single administration of a much lower dose (0.65 g/kg) of alcohol, and it used female subjects who drank slightly (but nonsignificantly) more than males. Our findings parallel theirs in that peak performance decrement after a single exposure to alcohol was similar for women and men, with gender differences most apparent in this study during a repeated alcohol exposure. Other studies which used a single alcohol exposure have reported few consistent gender differences. For example, Taylor, Dolhert, Friedman, and Mumenthaler (1996) studied male and female pilots and found no significant gender differences in the effects of alcohol on flight simulator performance. Hindmarch et al. (1991), using a cognitive-behavioral battery of tests, found males more impaired than females on some tasks, with no differences in other tasks. In contrast, Avant (1990) found that females were more impaired by alcohol in a visual detection task than males.

Cherpitel (1996) reported that whereas 3109 alcohol-related emergency-room visits were more frequently violence-related among men, a greater proportion of women compared to men suffered injuries related to falls or motor vehicle accidents. Our findings suggest that a portion of that gender difference may have been caused by differences in the effects of alcohol on hand-eye coordination. A potential confound must be considered, however. Although we roughly equalized peak intoxication between men and women by reducing the dose for female subjects, there was nevertheless a trend toward women having higher BAC levels than men during non-peak sessions. This probably contributed to the overall main effect of gender on rotary pursuit contact times recorded during the two alcohol exposure days. In contrast, our main finding of gender differences in performance decrement during a second exposure to BAC [greater than] 0.10 may not have been due to pharmackinetics in that a regression analysis indicated no relationship between specific BAC readings and performance decrement. Nevertheless, similar BAC values between men and women throughout all sessions would improve data interpretation, and future studies should attempt to make further dosage adjustments to minimize between-gender BAC differences along the ascending and descending limbs of the BAC curve.

Interestingly, among these subjects (all of whom reported consuming at least 5-6 drinks of alcohol per week), there was no correlation between the effect of alcohol on performance and self-reported rates and histories of alcohol consumption. The lack of significant correlations here suggests that the greater effect of alcohol on the performance of female subjects may not have been due to somewhat lower rates of weekly alcohol consumption.

The mild parallels found here between expected intoxication and performance decrement have been previously reported in studies of male social drinkers. Fillmore and VogeI-Sprott (1995a) reported that expected intoxication correlated positively with rotary pursuit performance impairment, but that this relationship only holds for experienced drinkers (Fillmore & VogeI-Sprott, 1995b). The preliminary data from experienced social drinkers presented here suggests that this relationship may hold for women as well.

In conclusion, the present study found no evidence for acute tolerance on either day of exposure. However, a significant difference was observed with respect to alcohol effects with male and female subjects on the second day of exposure. These differences can be attributed to what appears to be not just a small tolerance development in males but perhaps a relatively large sensitivity effect in the female subjects. An explanation for this result is beyond the scope of this study and requires further research. This study, which presented two alcohol exposures, does not provide the opportunity to assess whether this sensitivity is a transitive phenomenon which would attenuate and give way to the chronic tolerance development which has been reported frequently in males (Bennett, 1992; Vogel-Sprott, 1992). Systematic gender comparisons of alcohol-induced effects on performance and alcohol pharmacokinetics across several days of exposure would be able to verify these present findings as well as address the issue of gender differences in tolerance development more fully.

We thank Sheila White and David Huang for their technical assistance. This research was supported by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (AA-10095). Address all correspondence to Donald M. Dougherty, Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences, 1300 Moursund Street, Houston, TX 77030. Phone: 713-500-2797, Fax: 713-500-2849, E-mail:


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Author:Dougherty, Donald M.; Bjork, James M.; Bennett, Robert H.
Publication:The Psychological Record
Date:Jun 22, 1998
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