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The Drunk Test

Young people decide whether they’ve had enough to drink the same way the cruise control on a car “decides” whether to accelerate or hit the brakes.

That’s a preliminary finding in an unusual new study that aims to analyze drinking behavior the way engineers might analyze a mechanical system.

In two papers to appear in the journal IEEE Transactions on Cybernetics, a team of social workers and engineers at The Ohio State University used mathematical models to help explain the factors that drive alcohol consumption.

They found that college students drank until they attained a certain level of drunkenness, and then adjusted the pace of their drinking—sipping versus gulping, for example, or switching to a non-alcoholic beverage—at different times throughout the night to maintain that level.

John Clapp, a professor of social work and director of the Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention and Recovery at Ohio State, has been gathering data on high-risk drinking among college students for more than a decade. He and his colleagues believe that analyzing all that data via engineering methods might reveal relationships among complex factors that would otherwise remain hidden.

“We’re looking for the best points to intervene strategically, so that we can aid a person in their decision-making and potentially derail problematic behaviors,” Clapp said.

As a first test of their idea, Clapp asked Ohio State engineer Kevin Passino to re-analyze data that Clapp and his former research team at San Diego State University collected on students at parties and bars in San Diego. They performed portable alcohol breath tests, and over several studies, accumulated blood alcohol content (BAC) data on nearly 1,500 students.

Passino, professor of electrical and computer engineering and director of Ohio State’s Humanitarian Engineering Center, searched the data for patterns that might resemble a typical engineering problem. He and former doctoral student Luis Felipe Giraldo were surprised by what they found.

“The way the students made decisions about drinking actually resembled the single most common feedback controller that’s used in engineering,” Passino said. “It’s called a proportional-derivative controller, and it measures how far a system has moved from a particular set point and adjusts accordingly. It’s the same as cruise control on a car.”

Find the full story via Pam Frost Gorder in Ohio State Communications: