Graduation Year


Document Type




Degree Granting Department


Major Professor

Mark Goldman, Ph.D.


Startle eyeblink, Alcohol use, Expectancy theory, Blunted response, Psychophysiology


Research has shown alcohol expectancies to be critically important in understanding maladaptive drinking patterns within alcohol use disorders. Alcohol expectancies, thought to be automatically elicited in the presence of environmental alcohol-related cues, represent both cognitive and affective associations with drinking behavior. However, the automatic and affective properties of alcohol expectancies have not yet been thoroughly measured in the literature. Psychophysiological measures, including skin conductance, heart rate, and the acoustic startle response in particular, offer a uniquely powerful set of indices for the automatic affective processing of alcohol-related cues.

Therefore, the present study was designed to examine how alcohol expectancies moderate affective processing of alcohol cues and how they relate to other known risk variables for alcohol use disorders.Fifty-eight college-aged participants viewed pictures from three categories (neutral, alcohol-nonsocial, and alcohol-social) and gave subjective ratings of valence, arousal, dominance, and craving for each cue. Skin conductance, heart rate and startle responses were obtained during picture viewing. The startle eyeblink reflex was probed early in the picture viewing sequence to assess arousing and attentional cue properties and late in order to address affective and motivational cue properties.Analyses indicated that participants reporting more positive, arousing, and social alcohol expectancies rated alcohol cues as more pleasant, arousing and craving-inducing.

Individuals with greater positive/arousing alcohol expectancies displayed blunted cardiac deceleration during alcohol-related cues, indicating that they processed these cues as less aversive than other participants. In addition, individuals with greater social alcohol expectancies displayed greater skin conductance response to alcohol-related cues, indicating increased arousal during alcohol pictures. Startle response patterns indicated that individuals at greater risk for alcohol use disorders (i.e. family history positive, greater positive/arousing alcohol expectancies) displayed blunted processing of alcohol-related cues, while individuals at lower risk processed alcohol-related cues as more pleasing and attention-grabbing. Ultimately, alcohol-related cues were processed as more pleasing and appetitive among lower-risk individuals, lending support to affective and automatic processing component of alcohol expectancy theory.

This study also lends further evidence to support blunted affective processing of alcohol-related stimuli among high risk individuals.