Penn: Annenberg Study Finds Using Present Verb Tense Can Positively Affect Substance Abuse

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Media Contact:Joseph J. Diorio | jdiorio@asc.upenn.edu | 215-746-1798 July 16, 2012

The use of present versus the past tense in recalling an experience with binge drinking can positively influence behaviors, an important development in aiding the development of alcohol abuse messages.

That is the primary finding of a study by University of Pennsylvania Professor Dolores Albarracín, and colleagues Pilar Carrera, Dolores Muñoz, Amparo Caballero, and Itziar Fernàndez.  Their findings, the result of three studies analyzing the use of tense by college-age students while recalling incidents of binge drinking, is reported in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (Vol. 48, Issue 5).

How an incident of binge drinking is recalled can have a positive impact on influencing future behavior. Dr. Albarracín, the Martin Fishbein Chair of Communication at Penn’s Annenberg School for Communication, said that messages to reduce drinking may benefit from these findings.  “It may be best to use the present tense when evoking images of non-drinking behaviors being promoted but the past tense for the drinking behaviors to prevent.”  She added that use of the present tense in scenarios like self-help groups, may be particularly beneficial in preventing abuse.

Dr. Albarracín and her colleagues conducted three studies where participants wrote about their experiences in binge drinking using either the present or past tense.  Experiment number one revealed a stronger influence of past behaviors on drinking intentions when the test participants wrote about an episode of excessive drinking using the present tense. Correspondingly, there was a stronger influence of attitudes toward excessive drinking when participants wrote about the episode in the past tense. Experiments two and three found that the present tense recollections had a more concrete interpretation and impact, while past tense recollections were more abstract. 

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