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How personality, genetics impact link between racial discrimination, problem drinking

Study finds new protective role for personality trait, emphasizes importance of representation in genetic research


People seated around a table holding acloholic beverages clinking them together in a "cheers" motion.

A new study in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence has shown that people who enjoy seeking out new experiences are less likely to report problematic alcohol use that is associated with racism. Image by Fred Moon/Unsplash

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April 28, 2022

Racial discrimination is connected to problematic alcohol use in Black American youth. 

A new study published in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence has shown that this connection differs based on personality traits. People who tend to act impulsively in response to negative experiences are more likely to report problematic alcohol use that is associated with racism.

But, people who enjoy seeking out new experiences are less likely to report problematic alcohol use that is associated with racism. Though this personality trait is thought to be a common risk factor for alcohol use disorder, this study suggests that people with sensation-seeking personalities can better tolerate or cope with difficult situations such as racism. 

“We found that who you are in terms of personality traits related to impulsivity was an important factor that affected the impact of racial discrimination on alcohol use problems,” said Jinni Su, assistant professor of psychology at Arizona State University and first author on the paper. 

The work, which was a collaboration among scientists at ASU, Rutgers University and Virginia Commonwealth University, also examined genetic risk factors for problematic alcohol use among Black American youth.

Experiencing racial discrimination can contribute to problem drinking

The study included 383 college-age participants, and all were assessed for personality traits related to impulsive behaviors. The participants were also asked about their experiences with discriminatory microaggressions and about their alcohol use.

One personality trait that was examined was negative urgency, or the tendency to act without thinking when feeling distressed. Participants who scored high on assessments of negative urgency and indicated experiencing racial discrimination were more likely to engage in problematic drinking.

“Discrimination is a stressor and can make people feel negative emotions like anger or sadness,” Su said. “It makes sense that people who already have a tendency to act impulsively under stressful conditions in general have a higher risk of engaging in risky drinking as a result of 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 means taking risks. This personality characteristic has been so frequently associated with problem alcohol use that it is commonly considered a risk factor for excessive drinking

The participants who scored high on assessments of sensation seeking were less likely to engage in alcohol misuse associated with racial discrimination. In this study, the personality trait of sensation seeking was protective against some of the consequences of experiencing discrimination. 

“This finding was surprising given the research findings showing that sensation seeking is a risk factor for alcohol use. We found the opposite -- that sensation seeking attenuates the association between racial discrimination and alcohol problems,” Su said. “We think what might be happening is the tendency to seek out novel experiences makes people better able to tolerate emotionally arousing situations. It’s possible that having this personality trait means you are more likely to have acquired a wider range of coping skills and are thus more resilient to stressful experiences.”

The importance of including underrepresented populations in genetic studies

In addition to personality traits, the researchers investigated the genetic risk for alcohol misuse in the participants. To calculate the influence of genes on problematic drinking behaviors, they used a rating 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 being — is associated with a trait or behavior.

Among the 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 an important role in behavior, and though we did not find an association in this study, it does not necessarily mean the relationship is not there. We likely cannot see it because the predictive power for using genome-wide polygenic scores in people of color is limited due to their underrepresentation 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 overwhelmingly consist of genomes from people with 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 examined genetic risk factors for alcohol use disorder have used datasets that include over 1 million genomes from people with European ancestry.

“People of non-European ancestry remain underrepresented in genetic studies, which means we are not doing a good job characterizing genetic predispositions in these groups of people,” Su said.

The research team consisted of Su and Angel Trevino of the ASU Department of Psychology; Sally I-Chun Kuo of Rutgers University; and Fazil Aliev, Chelsea Williams, Mignonne Guy and Danielle Dick of Virginia Commonwealth University. The work was funded by the Institute for Social Science Research at ASU and by the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

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