Alcohol addiction: why we drink and its social impact

Below is an excerpt from the CSBS’s podcast with Dr. Catharine Fairbairn, Helen Corley Petit Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Illinois. In this episode, Dr. Fairbairn talks with CSBS Research Scientist Peter Ondish about the unique and fascinating journey she had into understanding addictions through research. We discuss the surprising cultural, social, and emotional reasons for why people drink alcohol, and at the same time debunk some common drinking misconceptions. We also talk about alcohol’s social impact at large, and how societies can re-imagine their relationship with alcohol.  

Pete: Your work takes a view that people do what they do for a reason. Maybe it’s not a great reason, but it’s not random. I’m kind of curious, what is it that people get when they drink, and how do we develop these kinds of social rituals around alcohol consumption?  

Catharine: There can be this idea about addiction that it’s frightening and illogical and irrational and almost like kind of a contagion, an infection of the human mind that makes us behave inhumanely. There are certain elements to addictive behavior that are very irrational and can be inhuman for sure…but at least in the earlier stages, and in the developmental view, that we can take a rational approach to understanding addiction, and that it is humans that take drugs, and humans that choose to take drugs, and that often in the earlier stages they take them for a reason. And if we can understand those reasons, then we can ultimately build smarter prevention measures and even smarter treatment measures. There’s a lot of amazing addiction research in this area, addressing this question of why people drink. The area I’ve been fascinated by is this area of the social motive.  

Pete: Let’s talk a little bit about the social motives and about the cohesion that comes with it. I think almost everyone has been in a situation where drinking is the social “thing to do.” I wonder about all the different kinds of rituals that we have around drinking and around the socialization practices we have around drinking. I’m curious about your thoughts on those. 

Catharine: Yeah, it is a really interesting realm. There has been this idea in the public imagination, as well as in our, our scientific discourse that addiction is a disorder of the solitary individual. If you close your eyes for a moment and bring to your mind, like, what does a real drug addict look like? What does a real alcoholic look like? In terms of that second question, you would probably be picturing in your mind that old, you know, that, that lonely old guy reaching for that glass of single malt. 

Pete: Or someone kind of locked in a room by themselves and the blinds are down, and the TV is on and it’s kind of a blurry haze.  

Catharine: Oh yeah. I mean, that’s very common and certainly, there are elements to addiction that can be isolating in certain cases. However, when you picture that you are actually picturing the minority of heavy drinkers and even individuals with disorder drinking patterns. The most common age group in which to have a serious drinking problem is the twenties. These folks are generally drinking with other people. So there are two kinds of related misconceptions out there. One is that social drinking is non-problem drinking. You know, if you go to your doctor and your doctor’s like, “Hey, do you drink?” You’re like, “oh, well, I’m a social drinker.” It’s almost like, you give them real information, by saying you’re a social drinker. And secondly, I think there’s this assumption that social motives are not powerful motives in humans. They like, they’re not intrinsic – they’re imposed on us, and as a result of that kind of extrinsic element to them, of course they couldn’t bubble up in such a way as to drive this like crazy addiction that we see.  

Pete: Right. Right.  

Catharine: Most problem drinkers drink in social context, and alcoholics tend to drink without other alcoholics. Social settings are where, if everybody drank alone in their living room, there wouldn’t be problems with driving while intoxicated. We wouldn’t have bar fights. And also, extreme binge drinking does mainly tend to be a social phenomenon… so I think alcohol can really serve as a social cohesive have a social cohesive function for people. And in some cases that can feel really heady and really rewarding, and in some cases lead people to consume more than they wanted.