How Much Do You Think You Drink?
In a recent study, Claire Garnett and her colleagues at University College London and King’s College London found that people tend to underestimate the amount they drink, especially if they’re young, male, white and unemployed. Close to 50 percent of the people who participated in a survey were found to underestimate the amount they drank relative to that of others. The new study was published in March 2015 in the journal Addictive Behaviors.
Many studies have found that college students and heavy drinkers tend to engage in what’s called “normative misperception”— underestimating the amount of alcohol one drinks relative to others. This new study’s aim was to assess a broader population, including a diverse sample of people from four English-speaking countries.
“There are a number of different explanations that have been proposed as to how and why people underestimate their drinking,” says Garnett, a PhD student at University College London. “To clarify, hazardous or harmful drinking does not necessarily lead to a dependence on or addiction to alcohol.”
In the study, Garnett presented an online global survey to 9,820 people aged 18+ from Australia, Canada, the UK, and the US who had consumed alcohol in the last year. The survey included a questionnaire that assessed alcohol consumption, harmful drinking and alcohol dependence, a socio-demographic assessment, and a question that assessed beliefs about how one’s drinking compares to that of others.
Garnett and her research team found that about 47 percent of people underestimated their own alcohol use relative to that of others, while about 25 percent who were at risk of alcohol dependence and about 36 percent of harmful alcohol users believed their drinking to be average or less than average. This normalizing behavior was more likely among respondents who were younger (16 to 24 years old), male, from the UK (versus US), less educated, white and unemployed (versus employed).
Perceptions of Drinking Linked to How Memorable It Was
There are many reasons why people would do this, Garnett says. “One possible explanation is that excessive drinking during social occasions is a very salient activity, meaning that it’s more easily remembered,” she says. “This could mean that people’s perceptions of typical alcohol use are then unreliably based on this more memorable information.” For example, if someone vomits at a party, that’s memorable. People will tend to compare the amount they drink to this extremely memorable behavior and say, “I’m not that bad.”
“Another potential explanation is that we adjust what we believe to be normal to justify our own alcohol use,” Garnett says. “This is known as ‘social norm calibration’ and allows us to view our own alcohol use as normal rather than unusual.”
Clayton Neighbors, PhD, a professor and the director of the social psychology program at the University of Houston believes “pluralistic ignorance” is an added element of peer pressure. “When people express more positive attitudes about heavier drinking, even if people don’t feel comfortable [with it], they’re more likely to keep their opinion to themselves.”
Since this behavior can lead to alcohol use disorders, some research has focused on prevention. Dr. Neighbors has been involved in research and development of personalized normative feedback, which is typically offered to drinkers in a brief intervention setting as a way to assess their drinking behavior. This feedback — in digital, paper or in-person form — is a way to help heavy drinkers see that they do drink more than others and what “normal” actually is.
In personalized normative feedback, which Neighbors’ research has shown to work well in both changing perceived norms and alcohol consumption, “you ask a person how much do you think the typical person drinks, and how much do you drink, and then you give them feedback on here’s how much the average person actually drinks and here’s how much you drink,” he says. “For heavier drinkers, they may or may not think other people drink more than they do, but they most always think that other people drink more than other people actually drink.”
According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, moderate alcohol consumption is defined as having up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men. A standard drink is equal to 14.0 grams or 0.6 ounces of pure alcohol. This amount of alcohol is found in:
- 12 ounces of beer (5 percent alcohol content)
- 8 ounces of malt liquor (7 percent alcohol content)
- 5 ounces of wine (12 percent alcohol content)
- 5 ounces or a “shot” of 80-proof distilled spirits or liquor such as gin, rum, vodka or whiskey (40 percent alcohol content)
By Jeanene Swanson
Follow Jeanene on Twitter at @JeaneneSwanson