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What's Your Drinking Personality?

Experts explore the differences in alcohol-induced behaviors.

Cultural Influences on Drinking

That's not the case universally, says Stanton Peele, PhD, adjunct psychology professor at New School University and author of the book Seven Tools to Beat Addiction.

"In some cultures, intoxicated behaviors are heavily disapproved of. When people become drunk they don't act the same way [that Americans do]," he says. He cites southern European countries, where alcohol is typically introduced early, within the context of family gatherings. "It demystifies alcohol and, as a result, you don't see so much acting out. Instead, drinking alcohol is associated with meals and convivial good times," Peele tells WebMD.

In most U.S. households, parents take a vastly different approach. "We tell young adults never to drink. It gives them a tremendous excuse to act out when they do drink," Peele says.

A recent U.S. survey of 644 women aged 17 to 35 conducted by the American Medical Association backs this theory. When asked if they use drinking as an excuse for outrageous behavior, 74% responded in the affirmative.

Shifting Ideas About 'Normal' Consumption

Is it possible to change the widely held belief that it's OK to act stupid and irresponsible when drinking? Since it's a culturally accepted norm among many young adults, it stands to reason that such a change would require a "shift" in thinking about what's normal. That's exactly what social-norms marketing attempts to do.

Social-norms marketing identifies people's misperceptions about their peers' behavior and then educates them to correct these misperceptions. It's a concept that, when applied systematically, has effectively reduced heavy drinking and related harm at college campuses in the U.S.

Michael Haines, director of the National Social Norms Resource Center at Northern Illinois University, explains the logic behind social-norms marketing. "If I think everyone's getting drunk at a pub crawl, I'm going to, too," he says. "False norms create imaginary peer pressure."

In a study of more than 76,000 college students, Haines and associates found that more than 70% of college students overestimate the drinking norms at their school. Why is that relevant? Because these same researchers also found that students' perception of their campus drinking norm was the strongest predictor of personal alcohol consumption.

Misperceptions About Alcohol-Induced Behavior

When it comes to alcohol consumption and behavior, misperceptions abound -- and not just among the young and inexperienced. The most dangerous ones have to do with people underestimating their own level of incapacitation.

This all-too-common phenomenon was clearly illustrated by psychology professor Kim Fromme, PhD, who had a group of moms visit her "simulated bar laboratory" and drink as much as they wanted for a few hours. Fromme, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, found that many of the subjects believed they were "OK to drive," even after consuming several drinks. After imbibing, the subjects expressed shock at how miserably they failed a simple balance test that required them to walk in a straight line.

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