The Right Time for Research on addictive behaviors

The Right Time For Research on Addictive Behaviors

by Robin Roenker
photos by Mark Cornelison

What sets psychologist Gregory Smith’s work apart from others doing research on alcoholism and other addictive behaviors is his ambitious goal to “chart a pathway of cause from the beginning to the end,” he said.

With his graduate students, Smith has developed models to assess a person’s risk for developing addictive behaviors that encompass both personality trait theory and psychosocial learning theory.

The old debate of whether nature or nurture predominates in determining behavior is, Smith says, obsolete. Now it’s understood that what’s important is how the two interact.

It’s that interplay that fascinates Smith, director of UK’s Clinical Psychology Training Program and member of the faculty since 1989.

“We are essentially trying to develop models for problem drinking or eating disorders or gambling or other addictive behaviors that chart a pathway of risk that include all the steps from genes to moment-to-moment behavior,” Smith explained.

Mapping that pathway of risk entails understanding a step-by-step cause-and-effect process that Smith explains like this: Differences in each person’s genetic makeup lead to differences in their brain functioning, which lead to differences in their basic personality, which in turn lead to differences in their psychosocial learning, which then lead to differences in their behavior.

Smith’s earlier research illustrated how fundamentally personality shapes what and how we learn from our environment. A key study showed that given the same learning experience, people with different personalities will learn different things from it.

Now, Smith’s work aims to identify and explain how certain high-risk personality traits—including what he calls “urgency,” the tendency to react rashly or impulsively when emotional—lead to a greater risk of developing problems with alcohol, eating disorders, and other addictive behaviors.

Those with high “urgency,” for instance, might be the most apt to party excessively after a favorite team’s sports win, or to drown their sorrows after a bad day in a quart of ice cream.

Supported by a $1.9 million grant from the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, Smith’s research team is currently conducting a four-year longitudinal study to assess the transition of 2,000 Kentucky students from fifth through eighth grade.

Smith’s team will assess the students every six months, measuring for high-risk personality traits and testing their theories that these personality differences shape the ways in which those adolescents learn about their world—in effect, leading them to have differing expectations about the benefits of drinking or other risky behaviors, and a greater risk of engaging in them.

The kids who are most prone to acting impulsively when they’re feeling intense emotion, Smith believes, will be the ones at the greatest risk for certain types of learning that lead to earlier-onset drinking and problem drinking, and, especially for the girls, binging and purging food.

While a genetic predisposition for impulsivity, or “urgency,” puts students at heightened risk of developing an addictive behavior, it’s their learning environment that helps shape the particular expression or trajectory of that behavior—whether smoking, drinking, or binge eating—Smith explains.

Simultaneous to the NIH longitudinal study, Smith’s team is conducting an intervention study that aims to teach adolescents how to avoid acting rashly or out of immediate gain when they’re emotional and instead to focus on long-term interests and goals. That way, it’s hoped, students’ focus on long-term goals like doing well in school and staying healthy will compel them to make positive choices rather than engaging in risky behaviors like drinking, binge eating, or experimenting with drugs. 

"Our thinking is if we can teach adolescents to do that, then we’re essentially altering their characteristic way of responding to the world,” Smith said. “And also altering what they learn, which could then have a lot of these downstream effects of reducing their risk of any form of addictive behavior.”

Smith’s innovative efforts to study addiction from such a comprehensive vantage point—from beginning to end, as he puts it—have drawn graduate students to his lab who are “innately interested in the whole picture of addition,” he said.

“My graduate students here at UK are amazingly good,” Smith began. “We have a culture here in the Psychology Department that is both friendly and ambitious. We feel confident that we can prepare graduate students well for any kind of doctoral career they want to choose.”

As director of the department’s Clinical Psychology Training Program, Smith works closely with all students in UK’s clinical psychology Ph.D. track, offering individual feedback on how their skills are developing.

It’s a role he relishes.

“If students want to make a real impact with research that’s going to be meaningful to people’s lives, we know we can prepare them for that here.”

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