Drinkers ignore government guidance and construct personal thresholds of too much alcohol

Thursday, 23 May 2019

New alcohol study on personal thresholds of safe drinking

New research highlights that national guidance on safe levels of alcohol consumption is disconnected from the real life experiences and conceptions of those who drink regularly.

Communicating safe drinking levels continues to be a challenge for public health leads, but a study from psychology researchers at Oxford Brookes University and the University of Liverpool found that less than 2% of respondents “referred to guidelines as informing their sense of too much alcohol.”

Perhaps more alarmingly for health experts, only 4% of respondents to the study referred to long-term health as contributing to their intuitive level of too much.

Instead, the vast majority of participants in the study published by Psychology & Health stated that thresholds were established through recognising previous negative states” with “a focus on short term risks of drinking too much alcohol. 
As the authors state, this “demonstrates a disconnect between medical conceptions of risk and the experiences that people call on to gauge when to stop drinking.”

Dr Emma Davies, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Oxford Brookes commented: “From the findings of this study, we can see that society’s challenge is to find a way of incorporating the increasingly robust medical findings around the dangers of alcohol consumption into the actual lived experiences of people who drink. 

“We know that many people are intimately aware of the short-term impacts that excessive drinking can have, which include feeling physically incapable, psychologically distressed, a loss of control of their actions or leading to negative interactions in social situations. However, this research also demonstrates that drinkers create their own threshold for what is an appropriate level of drinking, which is not based on expert guidance of safe alcohol unit levels.”

Dr Mark Burgess, Reader in the Department of Psychology, Health and Professional Development at Oxford Brookes University, added: “This research highlights that fresh approaches to public health interventions around the dangers of excessive alcohol consumption are required.

“People who have negative experiences when approaching their own ‘too much’ alcohol threshold may be more amenable to interventions as their bodies are already signalling for them to stop. However, those who have a more positive experience when reaching their own thresholds are likely to be less willing to change their behaviour, despite it being potentially more important for their health to do so. More targeted interventions are therefore recommended in future to influence people towards less harmful consumption.”  

The study, entitled My own personal hell: Approaching and exceeding thresholds of too much alcohol, is the first of its kind to focus on the experiential threshold of what we, as individuals, consider to be too much alcohol consumption.

The research involved 150 participants responding to an online survey about their drinking attitudes and behaviours. 

Nearly all participants (93%) described approaching their threshold as an embodied, physical and affective state. These experiences were characterised by rich accounts, with 75% of participants describing their states at either extremes of a positive-negative continuum set out in previous research.

For a greater understanding of this important area, the study recommends that further research could explore how those with positive and negative perceptions of reaching their personal drinking thresholds might influence each other within social settings.

The full paper is available to read online.