Is responsible drinking possible?

UNCW psychology professor Nora Noel hopes her research on men, women and high-risk behavior will help to determine how young people of both genders can drink more responsibly.

As director of the university's BEACH Lab-Behavioral Examination of Alcohol, Caffeine and Health-Noel designed studies to examine the relationship between alcohol consumption and the sexual coercion of women. Coercion, she explained, involves the act of pressuring someone to do something he or she doesn't want to do.

"Professor Nora NoelWhat I've been really interested in as a clinical psychologist is trying to understand, and then to change, how people make decisions to do things that are risky when they've been drinking," Noel said.

Noel launched her initial study in 2010, with funding from the National Institutes of Health. It was designed to examine men's decisions under varying levels of intoxication. In collaboration with fellow psychology professors Lee Jackson and Richard Ogle, Noel enlisted more than 300 men, ages 21-30, to fill out questionnaires to determine each man's threshold-or acceptance level-for interpersonal violence.

Then, in a double-blind experiment, she provided the same men with either vodka tonics or an identical-tasting placebo. She showed them various simulations of men and women interacting on a first date and asked them to respond to a second questionnaire. Finally, she measured participants' blood alcohol content.

What the researchers found was that under higher levels of intoxication, men who indicated more acceptance for interpersonal violence were more likely to endorse coercive behavior. While not every one of these men became more sexually coercive when he drank, some did become less inhibited under the influence of alcohol. These are the men, Noel believes, who are more likely to behave coercively.

"The other side of the coin is women, and the decisions women make about drinking," Noel observed. Historically, that's a controversial coin toss. Traditional guidance cautions women to simply not drink-but such advice is impractical, Noel asserted, and can lead to a criticizing- or blaming-the-victim scenario.

"Shouldn't women be able to drink" without threat to their wellbeing, Noel asked. "Well, sure. Women should be able to drink, and men should be able to drink. All that is true. The problem, unfortunately, is things are happening while that's going on. If we can understand this better, we can also develop some ways to prevent the aggressiveness and the violence and the coercion that happens."

A second study funded by a UNCW Charles L. Cahill Award presented women with theoretical scenarios and then asked them to make decisions about whether or not they would choose to have a drink. Along the way, Noel and her colleague Karen Daniels administered tests to measure attention, impulsivity and working memory.

Ultimately, Noel and colleagues hope to determine how young people might drink more responsibly. "Surprisingly, there's not a lot of research on that," Noel explained, a reality she intends to change. "Especially not in this context, and especially for women."