Newswise — Racial Discrimination is connected problematic alcohol use among young black Americans. A new study published in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence showed that this connection differs depending on personality traits.
Research shows that people who tend to act impulsively in response to negative experiences are more likely to report problematic alcohol use associated with racism. However, people who enjoy seeking new experiences are less likely to report problem drinking associated with racism. Although this personality trait is considered a common risk factor for alcohol use disorders, this study suggests that people with sensation-seeking personalities may better tolerate or cope with difficult situations such as than racism.
“We found that who you are in terms of personality traits related to impulsivity was an important factor affecting the impact of racial discrimination on problem drinking,” said Jinni Su, assistant professor of psychology at Arizona State University and first author of the article. .
The work, which was a collaboration between scientists from ASU, Rutgers University and Virginia Commonwealth University, also looked at genetic risk factors for problematic alcohol use among young Black Americans. .
Experience of racial discrimination may contribute to alcohol problem
The study included 383 college-aged participants, and all were assessed for personality traits related to impulsive behaviors. Participants were also asked about their experiences of discriminatory microaggressions and their alcohol consumption.
One personality trait that was examined was negative urgency, or the tendency to act without thinking when feeling distressed. Participants who scored high on negative urgency ratings and reported experiencing racial discrimination were more likely to engage in problematic drinking.
“Discrimination is a stressor and can cause people to feel negative emotions like anger or sadness,” Su said. “It makes sense that people who already tend to act impulsively under stressful conditions generally have a higher risk of risky drinking due to discrimination.”
From risk factor to protective personality trait
Another personality trait that was assessed was sensation seeking, or the tendency to pursue stimulating and new experiences even if it involves taking risks. This personality characteristic has been so frequently associated with problematic alcohol use that it is commonly considered a risk factor for heavy drinking.
Participants who scored high on sensation-seeking assessments were less likely to engage in alcohol abuse associated with racial discrimination. In this study, the sensation-seeking personality trait protected against some of the consequences of discrimination.
“This finding was surprising given research findings showing that sensation seeking is a risk factor for alcohol use. We found the opposite – that sensation seeking mediates the association between racial discrimination and alcohol problems,” Su said. “We think what might be happening is that the tendency to seek out new experiences makes people more adept at tolerating emotionally exciting situations. It’s possible that having this personality trait means you’re more likely to have learned a wider range of coping skills and are therefore more resilient to stressful experiences.
The importance of including underrepresented populations in genetic studies
In addition to personality traits, the researchers studied the genetic risk of alcohol abuse among the participants. To calculate the influence of genes on problematic drinking behaviors, they used an assessment called a genome-wide polygenic score. This score is based on how an entire genome – which is the complete genetic instructions for a living organism like a human – is associated with a trait or behavior.
Among study participants, the genome-wide polygenic score for having an alcohol use disorder was not associated with problematic alcohol use.
“We know that genetics can play a big role in behavior, and although we didn’t find an association in this study, that doesn’t necessarily mean the relationship doesn’t exist. We probably can’t. see because the predictive power of using genome-wide polygenic scores in people of color is limited due to their under-representation in large-scale genetic studies,” Su said.
Genome-wide polygenic scores are calculated from large datasets that can include millions of different genomes. Most of these large datasets are mostly made up of genomes from people of European ancestry.
In this study, the dataset used to calculate the genome-wide polygenic score included just over 56,000 black Americans. Other studies that have looked at genetic risk factors for alcohol use disorders have used datasets that include more than one million genomes from people of European descent.
“People of non-European ancestry remain underrepresented in genetic studies, which means we’re not doing a good job of characterizing genetic predispositions in these groups of people,” Su said.
The research team consisted of Su and Angel Trevino of ASU’s Department of Psychology; Sally I-Chun Kuo of Rutgers University; and Fazil Aliev, Chelsea Williams, Mignonne Guy and Danielle Dick from Virginia Commonwealth University. The work was funded by ASU’s Institute for Social Science Research and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.