Testing the global-slowing hypothesis: Are alcohol's effects on human performance process-specific or task-general?

Colin Ryan*, Katherine Russo, Janet Greeley

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    16 Citations (Scopus)


    In an interesting recent meta-analysis, Maylor and Rabbitt (1993) suggested that alcohol's effects on human performance may not be process- or stage-specific, but reflect a general, undifferentiated, cognitive slowing. According to this view, performance is globally slowed by a constant multiplicative fraction (b), such that the longer a process takes without alcohol on board (a -), the more it will be slowed by alcohol (a +). In summary: RTa+ = b(RTa-). In this sense, the effects of alcohol are determined simply by the duration of a process or stage - not by its function or content - and attempts to map the effects of alcohol to specific cognitive operations are essentially futile. This global-slowing hypothesis entails, then, (i) that the function relating RTa+ to RTa- will be linear and increasing; (ii) that the value of b will be significantly greater than 1.0; and (iii) that all experimental factors which increase the complexity (hence, duration) of a task or stage will interact with alcohol. In this study we tested the global-slowing hypothesis directly using fixed set, varied set and concurrent sets item-recognition paradigms. All three tasks showed convincing additivity between alcohol and other key experimental factors which affect response latency (e.g., setsize, response type); there was no hint of any of the spectrum of significant interactions predicted by the global-slowing hypothesis. A meta-analysis of varied set latencies, analogous to Maylor and Rabbitt's, yielded a reasonably linear alcohol/no-alcohol function, but with a slope constant (b) less than 1.0. In all, the data provided little support for the global-slowing hypothesis.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)59-78
    Number of pages20
    JournalActa Psychologica
    Issue number1
    Publication statusPublished - Jun 1996


    • Additive factor method
    • Alcohol
    • Global-slowing hypothesis
    • Memory scanning
    • Reaction time

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