Where’s the wine? Heavy social drinkers show attentional bias towards alcohol in a visual conjunction search task.

Charlotte Pennington*, Daniel Joel Shaw, Jennifer Adams, Phoebe Kavanagh, Holly Reed, Madeleine Robinson, Emily Shave, Hollie White

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background and Aims: Research indicates that high consumers of alcohol exhibit attentional bias (AB) towards alcohol-related cues, suggestive of a cognitive mechanism that might drive substance seeking. Many tasks that measure AB (e.g. visual probe, addiction Stroop), however, are limited by their reliance on non-appetitive control cues, the serial presentation of stimuli and their poor internal reliability. The current study employed a visual conjunction search (VCS) task capable of presenting multiple alcoholic and non-alcoholic appetitive cues simultaneously to assess whether social drinkers attend selectively to alcoholic stimuli. To assess the construct validity of this task, we examined whether alcohol consumption and related problems, subjective craving and drinking motives predict alcohol-specific AB. Design and setting: A VCS task was performed in a laboratory setting, which required participants to detect the presence of appetitive alcoholic (wine, beer) and non-alcoholic (cola, lemonade) targets within arrays of matching and non-matching distractors. Participants: Data from 99 participants were assessed [mean age = 20.77, standard deviation (SD) = 2.98; 64 (65%) females], with 81.8% meeting the threshold for harmful alcohol consumption (mean AUDIT = 12.89, SD = 5.79). Measurements: Self-reports of alcohol consumption and related problems [Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test (AUDIT)], subjective craving (Alcohol Craving Questionnaire Short Form) and drinking motives (Drinking Motives Questionnaire Short Form) were obtained, and the VCS task measured response times for the correct detection of alcoholic and non-alcoholic targets. Findings: Participants were significantly quicker to detect alcoholic relative to non-alcoholic appetitive targets (P < 0.001, d z = 0.41), which was predicted positively by AUDIT scores (P = 0.013, R 2 = 0.06%). The VCS task achieved excellent reliability (α > 0.79), superior to other paradigms. Conclusions: The visual conjunction search task appears to be a highly reliable method for assessing alcohol-related attentional bias, and shows that heavy social drinkers prioritize alcoholic cues in their immediate environment.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1650-1659
Number of pages10
Issue number9
Early online date7 Mar 2020
Publication statusPublished - 1 Sept 2020

Bibliographical note

This is the peer reviewed version of the following article: Pennington, C. R., Shaw, D. J., Adams, J., Kavanagh, P., Reed, H., Robinson, M., Shave, E., and White, H. (2020) Where's the wine? Heavy social drinkers show attentional bias towards alcohol in a visual conjunction search task. Addiction, 115: 1650– 1659, which has been published in final form at https://doi.org/10.1111/add.14997.  This article may be used for non-commercial purposes in accordance With Wiley Terms and Conditions for self-archiving.


  • Alcohol consumption
  • attentional bias
  • drinking motives
  • subjective craving
  • visual attention
  • visual search


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