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Binge drinkers crave liquid courage

U. WASHINGTON (US) — The added social benefits of chattiness and charisma can trump the negative effects of too much alcohol for some binge drinkers.

The findings, published online in the journal Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, offer a new direction for intervention programs, which tend to focus on avoiding alcohol’s negative results rather than considering its rewards.

“This study suggests why some people can experience a lot of bad consequences of drinking but not change their behavior,” says Kevin King, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Washington.

“People think, ‘It’s not going to happen to me’ or ‘I’ll never drink that much again.’ They do not seem to associate their own heavy drinking with negative consequences.”

For the study, nearly 500 college students completed an online survey measuring their drinking habits during the previous year that assessed how often the participants had experienced 35 different negative consequences of drinking, including blackouts, fights, hangovers, missed classes and work, and lost or stolen belongings.

The survey also measured 14 positive effects of drinking, including better conversational and joke-telling abilities, improved sexual encounters, and more energy to stay up late partying and dancing.

The researchers also measured the participants’ beliefs about how likely all of these drinking consequences would happen again and how positive or negative they were.

Participants rated the upsides to drinking as more positive and likely to happen in the future, a finding the researchers call “rose-colored beer goggles.”

“It’s as though they think that the good effects of drinking keep getting better and more likely to happen again,” says Diane Logan, clinical psychology graduate student and the study’s lead author.

Perceptions of the negative consequences of drinking differed according to how many bad experiences the student had had. Those who experienced a small to moderate number of ill effects of drinking did not consider the experiences to be not so bad and did not think that they were any more likely to experience them again compared with students who hadn’t experienced them.

Researchers call this cognitive-dissonance reasoning and say it leads to people, on the morning after a night of heavy partying, telling themselves ‘I’ll never drink that much again.’ Or, it may be that once a bad consequence of drinking happens, people think that it wasn’t really as bad as they initially thought.

But participants who reported the worst experiences rated the episodes as more negative and more likely to happen again.

“Until high levels of negative consequences are experienced, participants aren’t deterred by the ill effects of drinking,” Logan says.

The findings have implications for alcohol intervention programs for college students, which tend to focus on how to avoid the negative consequences of drinking.

A risk reduction approach that helps people reduce their drinking in a way that they still get some of the positive effects while avoiding many of the negative may be effective when combined with training exercises to increase social skills in the absence of alcohol.

Factoring in how people view alcohol’s positive effects might have a bigger impact on drinking habits, Logan says. “We should take into account how people don’t think of negative consequences as all that bad or likely to happen again.”

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