It’s commonly used to demonstrate behavioral inhibition, but it’s also a nifty parlor game. Its called the Stroop Test, and it plays off the fact that people are far better at reading words than they are at intentionally ignoring them. To prove it, John Ridley Stroop’s 1935 Ph.D. thesis showed how difficult it is to interfere with the automatic processing of words. In the basic Stroop test, a list of color names is presented. However, the word green might be printed in red ink, and the word red might be printed in blue ink. The task is to quickly name not the word itself, but the color of the word. As an example, for the word “green” printed in red ink, the correct verbal answer is “red.” Because of a phenomenon called directed attention, this is hilariously difficult to do. The subject must actively inhibit the automatic response—reading the word—in order to do something else.
What’s all this got to do with drug addiction?
Psychologists have known for some time that drug craving focuses attention on drug-related stimuli in the environment, and draws attention away from environmental cues unrelated to drugs. Naturally, researchers began to wonder whether the Stroop test could be brought to bear on the matter of addiction, and employed as a tool with which to predict the likelihood of relapse among the addict population.
As researchers at the University of Wales have pointed out, “Decisions about drinking and drug use can be highly automatic, with users being unaware of the factors that influence their decisions.” At the same time, addicts are hyper-aware of addiction-related environmental stimuli, compared to non-addicts. As a result, “the automatic processing of addiction-related stimuli might elicit conditioned responses such as withdrawal… or they might invoke automatic patterns leading to substance use.”
In a recent study of treatment dropouts among 74 cocaine-addicted subjects, published in Neuropsychopharmacology, Dr. Chris Streeter and coworkers at the Boston University School of Medicine and Harvard University provide strong evidence for the use of the Stroop Test as a diagnostic tool in addiction treatment. Variations on the Stroop Test were better predictors of dropout than addiction severity, depression, and other clinical variables. Dropouts took 24 per cent longer, on average, to finish the tests than cocaine addicts who stuck with treatment, the researchers reported. “These finding suggest that the Stroop test can be used to identify cocaine-dependent subjects at risk for treatment dropout,” say the researchers, and that it can serve as another instrument with which to “identify and tailor interventions of at risk individuals in the hope of improving treatment compliance.”
Furthermore, other studies suggest that attentional bias may serve as a useful predictor of opiate relapse and smoking cessation failure as well.
Streeter, C., Terhune, D., Whitfield, T., Gruber, S., Sarid-Segal, O., Silveri, M., Tzilos, G., Afshar, M., Rouse, E., Tian, H., Renshaw, P., Ciraulo, D., & Yurgelun-Todd, D. (2007). Performance on the Stroop Predicts Treatment Compliance in Cocaine-Dependent Individuals Neuropsychopharmacology, 33 (4), 827-836 DOI: 10.1038/sj.npp.1301465