During September 2015, Brandi Fink, assistant professor at the UNM Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, began a research study exploring a pattern between alcohol and domestic violence.
“We hope to learn why intimate partner violence (IPV) is more likely to occur when people are drinking alcohol,” Fink said. “IPV is a serious public health problem, and we are hoping to identify new ways to intervene with this problem.”
Fink said her collaborators included Eric Claus of the Mind Research Network, as well as James Cavanagh and Derek Hamilton of the UNM Department of Psychology.
She said she chose to specifically compare alcohol and domestic violence because she has had an interest in IPV since graduate school.
“I did a post-doctoral fellowship on a National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIH/NIAAA) Institutional Research Training Grant at the UNM Center on Alcoholism, Substance Abuse and Addictions (UNM CASAA), because it was clear from the literature that one cannot study IPV without also studying alcohol use,” Fink said. ”Most instances of IPV occur when one or both partners have been drinking.”
Through funding from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, the study entails various sessions, she said.
Fink said one session includes both partners completing a series of questionnaires on their alcohol usage, relationship functioning, communication patterns and conflict resolution.
Another session is an experimental session, she said, involving only one partner returning to the laboratory; he or she drinks alcohol while completing tasks on a computer. Data is also collected on the participant’s brain and physiological responses to video clips of his or her partner.
Fink said participants are between the ages of 21 and 45. They are heterosexual, married or cohabitating couples, who face conflict in their relationships.
Although some participants might be heavy drinkers, she said the experiment excludes individuals who may have alcohol dependence and refers them to treatment.
Madi Frost, an alumna who graduated in December, is one of Fink’s research assistants for the study.
Frost said she guides participants and works one-on-one with them during sessions, gathering information, answering questions and ensuring all procedures are followed according to protocol. She said she also helps screen participants to determine eligibility.
Mary Geene, a senior psychology major, is another research assistant for the study. She said she codes videos of the participants and attends weekly training meetings.
Geene said she encourages other students pursuing a degree in her field to volunteer in a lab environment.
“With a degree program like psychology, you need that experience to get ahead of the game,” she said. “It also helps give you ideas of what you want to study, like if there is a certain type of disorder or problem you want to learn about, we probably have a lab that works on it.”
Frost said that working with Fink on her research gives her much-needed experience and preparation for grad school and beyond.
"[Fink] has taught me what it is like to be a neutral researcher and how to be empathetic without being biased. I have also learned of methods that I can apply to other labs,” Frost said.
Although the study runs through August, 2017, Fink said she has already seen remarkable findings.
“Our preliminary results suggest that partners who are in distressed relationships where there is physical aggression respond to their partners with more cortical and physiological arousal than partners who do not have any physical aggression in their distressed relationships. This finding appears to be amplified by alcohol,” she said.
Fink said that is important because it shows that individuals are less likely to respond in ways that don’t result in physical aggression in instances of conflict or disagreement.
She said that individuals are often surprised that males and females both commit IPV, including severe IPV, and that this remains true when alcohol is a factor.
“For instance, males are almost three times more likely to commit IPV on days of heavy drinking. Females are almost 11 times more likely to commit IPV on days of heavy drinking,” she said. “The risk for committing IPV increases 13 percent with each additional drink consumed...Up to 70 percent of instances of IPV occur when one or both partners have been drinking.”
Fink said that interested couples - who may earn up to two hundred dollars for participating - can call the Emotions and Decisions of Couples study at 272-9538 for more information and screening.
Elizabeth Sanchez is a reporter for the Daily Lobo. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Beth_A_Sanchez.