Photo: Colourbox

Why we drink and drive

Tuesday 08 Dec 15
by Louise Amalie Juul Sønderskov


Laila Marianne Martinussen
Senior Researcher
DTU Management
+4545 25 65 15
Even though most people are strongly opposed to driving while under the influence of alcohol, around 13,000 motorists a year are charged with drink driving. According to a DTU researcher, this behaviour may be caused by attitudes we do not even know we have. 

Attitude surveys reveal that the vast majority of Danes are opposed to drink driving. Nevertheless, drink driving is a contributory factor in around one fifth of all fatal road traffic accidents in Denmark. This may be because our implicit—i.e. subconscious—attitudes are different to and stronger than our explicit attitudes, i.e. the ones we consciously express.

“Attitudes don’t always match behaviour. It has previously been demonstrated that when it comes to behaviour or attitudes that are socially stigmatized, implicit attitudes affect behaviour to a larger degree than explicit ones,” relates Laila Matinussen. A researcher at DTU Transport, Laila is working to establish whether it is possible to change these implicit attitudes, and thus to influence the tendency to drink and drive.

Implicit attitudes are the ones people may not necessarily be aware that they have. The DTU researcher explains that these attitudes arise because people tend to draw on previous experience and lessons learned. For example, your father may have driven while he was drunk. Very simply put, this would generate a kind of direct link in your brain between drinking alcohol and driving—a link that is stronger than the alternative. And if you then find yourself in a situation where you have the opportunity to drive while under the influence, you would be more likely to do so on account of the stronger link between the two pieces of information in your brain.

Test in front of the screen
The project is to involve 100 men aged between 18 and 24. The first step is to test their implicit attitudes using what is known as the ‘GNAT test’—Go/No Go Association Task. This is a type of reaction test where subjects are shown some pictures, words or phrases on a computer monitor and then tested on how quickly they associate a concept or attitude object with something positive or negative.

"When it comes to behaviour or attitudes that are socially stigmatized, implicit attitudes affect behaviour to a larger degree than explicit ones."
Laila Matinussen, researcher at DTU Transport

Once the implicit attitudes have been measured, Laila Martinussen and her team will attempt to change them using an Approach Avoidance Task (AAT) test. Like the GNAT test, this involves a computer and the same set of images. However, instead of pressing buttons, the test subjects use a joystick to react to what they see.

“We set up three groups; one is to use the joystick to pull the pictures associated with drink driving towards them so that—if it works—they develop a more positive implicit attitude to drink driving. The members of the second group are to push them away, which we hope will result in them developing a more negative attitude, while the third group will function as a control group, with the members simply pushing the joystick from side to side,” explains Laila Martinussen.

Use of a joystick affects attitudes
Laila herself terms the experiment ‘slightly unconventional’, and it is also the first time it has been used in the context of drink driving. However, the AAT method is often utilized in clinical psychology and has previously functioned as intended —in experiments involving clinical alcoholics, for example.

“Using a movement, i.e. pulling something towards you or pushing it away, clearly has an effect. And if it works well, it may have the capacity to alter our implicit attitudes,” says Laila Martinussen.

She emphasizes that any people who are influenced to develop a more positive implicit attitude to drink driving will be required to take the test again to have the effect annulled. The pictures are camouflaged so the test subjects are not consciously aware that they are pulling ‘drink driving images’ towards them, or pushing them away. The whole point of the test is to function on the subconscious level.

The project, which is funded by TrygFonden, is scheduled to conclude towards the end of 2017.

Photo: Colourbox