A long-term research project at the University of Missouri-Columbia is producing valuable information about alcoholism and individuals who are affected by a family history of the disease. MU psychology researchers, now several years into a multi-year study, have discovered that individuals from alcoholic homes maintain personality traits that could eventually lead to alcohol dependency.
Kenneth J. Sher, professor of clinical psychology in the College of Arts and Science's Department of Psychological Sciences, and psychology graduate student Jenny Larkins, have compared personality differences of individuals from alcoholic homes to those from non-alcoholic environments. They are monitoring the neuroticism and psychoticism levels of individuals from both groups. The neuroticism scale measures characteristics such as anxiety, depression, guilt, shyness, moodiness and emotionality. The psychoticism scale measures traits related to aggression, egocentrism, impulsivity and anti-social behavior. When the study began in 1987, individuals with family histories of alcoholism scored higher than their counterparts.
Over time and as participants in both groups aged, the researchers found an overall decrease in neuroticism and psychoticism levels. However, Sher said those from alcoholic homes maintained relatively higher levels of deviant behavioral and emotional traits during adult maturation.
"There are tremendous changes in personality from adolescence to adulthood," he said. "We know that people become less neurotic as they get older. One of the things we looked at in this study was the degree of change and whether the gap closes or people maintain those differences. What we find are decreases in neuroticism and psychoticism as people age, but the levels are still higher for people with family histories of alcoholism. Everybody becomes more emotionally stable, but the differences are still maintained."
Sher said another goal was to track personality changes after participants affected by the disease moved out of such environments.
When the study began, the median age of participants was 18. Initially, 489 signed up for the study; 389 currently participate. The participants were selected during their freshman year at MU. They completed alcoholism screening tests which measured paternal and maternal drinking habits. Following interviews, they were categorized as either having a family history of alcoholism or not. Participants were assessed during each of the first four years. Follow-ups were conducted during years seven and 11 - with the most recent providing information for Sher's current discovery.
The study, "Family History of Alcoholism and the Stability of Personality in Young Adulthood," has been published in Psychology of Addictive Behaviors.
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