Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The benefits of binge drinking

It's widely recognised that binge drinking is not all bad. In fact, many would argue it is all good. Of course selectively ignoring potential long-term health consequences. Professor Anna van Wersch, a psychologist in the University’s School of Social Sciences & Law, has published an outline of the binge drinking culture in Britain in this months Journal of Health Psychology.

Definitions of what constitutes a binge vary, but anything more than 3 or 4 drinks is generally considered excessive. Based on interviews with 32 drinkers the authors conducted a grounded theory analysis and outlined a conceptual model. Investigating the reasons for heavy drinking using a qualitative approach was motivated, at least in part, by the limitations of quantitative social psychology models. Subtle cultural and contextual factors that may influence drinking are not captured well under broad categories such as 'social norms' in models such as the theory of planned behaviour.

The authors asked what allows these social norms to persist and aimed to detail specific linkages that promote a cycle of drinking. They found people typically associated binge drinking with initiating interaction, escapism, and positive feelings. As a way to protect this outlet people minimize negative experiences and promote the positives. The mental neglect of potential harm is seen as changeable over the life-course as a function of changes in the self (e.g. more dutiful), and varying levels of responsibility and finance.

Whilst binge drinking can have harmful immediate and long-term effects the authors point out that it fulfills a need in society. Binge drinking appears to have positive affective consequences when people remain in control. This is seen by various academic commentators as ‘constrained ritual drinking’, ‘bounded hedonistic consumption’, ,‘sensuous indulgence of consuming happens in a planned, carefully controlled way’, or my favourite ‘controlled decontrolling of emotions’. It's all just a bit of catharsis, as Aristotle would have said.

Though clearly binge drinking isn't always just blowing off steam. Drinking outliers will be literally laid out in A & E wards and holding cells across the country. By reducing the binge drinking culture we restrict the likelihood of problematic anti-social behaviours. A restriction of alcohol supply may be a positive step. This is especially so, given the often cited relationship between liberal opening hours and reduced levels of binge drinking appears incidental. The authors also emphasize the importance of putting in place realistic alternatives to the stress-excess weekly work-binge drinking cycle. Though I wonder what these are?

Given recent research showing television advertisements increase our viewing pleasure, maybe theatre or other mechanisms that externally restrict our drinking for prolonged periods will make us enjoy it all the more, without endangering our health!

1 comment:

Liam Delaney said...

The issue of binge drinking is partly one of the aggregation of individual risks and partly one of internalising the risk one is placing on one's future self. For example, even if drinking four drinks had a statistically significant though tiny effect on the probabilty of getting into some trouble, even such a tiny effect aggregated over a population can have dramatic consequences for public hospitals, emergency departments and so on. The drinking in control thing essentially may not feel risky to individuals and may be associated with positive emotions at the time but the added risk is still there. The key issue is that communicating public risk in a private society is a very difficult thing particularly if people are happy enough to take on their own individual risk. One way, of course, to communicate the added risk to people is to price it into the taxation of alcohol, particularly the added risk that you place to others. This is the "externalities" approach. Where it becomes interesting is when you assume that people are placing a future health burden on themselves that they are not fully internalising. Because your future self is not at the bargaining table, one argument is that he/she should be given a fair shake by the environment somehow bringing in these "internalities". Putting precise figures on those types of things is as much art as science but the tax would be a lot higher if you recognised them than if you didnt.