By Christa Labouliere Ph.D.
A Doctoral Dissertation Defended in 2013
Traditional college students are members of an age bracket noted for high levels of risky behavior, and research has shown that certain risky behaviors, such as disordered eating and problematic alcohol use, are particularly common among undergraduates. It is well established that certain events in the learning history predispose vulnerable persons to engage in maladaptive risky behaviors. What is less clear is why some persons facing these events go on to develop maladaptive behavior while others do not, or why people facing similar events develop different varieties of maladaptive behaviors. Current research has focused extensively on risk factors that are common across dysregulated behaviors (e.g., affect dysregulation, impulsivity, etc.); however, few studies have yet explored which risk factors differentiate risk for different maladaptive behaviors. Likely, certain mediating factors, such as beliefs about one's capability to tolerate the aversive aspects of a specific behavior, may differentiate groups at-risk for engaging in different maladaptive behaviors. Being able to determine specific risk factors for maladaptive behaviors would have obvious predictive value for targeted prevention and intervention efforts. Nevertheless, current research in the fields of risky behavior has relatively neglected the exploration of these specific risk factors, leading to theoretical, measurement, and application gaps in the literatures surrounding these problematic areas.
This study aspires to address some of those gaps, by extending the construct of acquired capability (i.e., the role of exposure and habituation to certain events in the learning history that predict the development of the ability to engage in risky behaviors despite emotional or physical discomfort) from the field of self-harm to other risky behaviors. Acquired capability as a differentially-specific risk factor has been widely validated in the field of self-harm, but has been relatively unexplored in the fields of disordered eating and problematic alcohol. As such, this study aims to develop a measure of acquired capability for disordered eating and problematic alcohol use, then validate this measure by exploring associations between acquired capability-enhancing events in the learning history, acquired capability-related beliefs, and actual risk behaviors, over and above the contributions of other common risk factors (e.g., affect dysregulation, sensation seeking) in a sample of college undergraduates.