UI Researcher Sheds Light On Social Aspects Of Drinking

March 04, 2016
 
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Research shows drinking alcohol can come with social rewards, such as the ability to form bonds with others or worry less about social rejection.

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We know that drinking to excess is not good, but that small amounts of alcohol can have health benefits. It turns out - there can also be social rewards from alcohol. That’s the focus of Catharine Fairbairn’s research. She’s an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Illinois.

Catharine Fairbairn

Catharine Fairbairn is an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Illinois who is studying how alcohol impacts social interactions.

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Fairbairn says that when it comes to drinking alcohol, peer pressure certainly plays a role. But there are other factors at play as well.

For example, she says, “when you drink, it can take a little bit of the edge off in social settings. It can help you form bonds with other people. It might help you worry a little bit less about social rejection and instead just really pay attention to the person in front of you.”

Previous research has shown that men are twice as likely to drink excessively than women. This gender difference can be explained, at least in part, by differences in the way people interact with one another in all-male or all-female groups. One of the questions Fairbairn is interested in exploring is whether alcohol frees men from societal norms regarding masculinity, which “might allow them to form connections with others that they might not feel like they can form” in a setting where alcohol is not involved.

Although some of Fairbairn's previous research has suggested that alcohol can help with social bonding, especially among men, too much alcohol can lead to an unhealthy dependence or addiction. But Fairbairn says people’s perception of how much alcohol they consume can be skewed, because most people make a judgment about themselves by comparing themselves with others.

“I think that's a really problematic place to start for a variety of reasons, mostly because we select into our environment,” Fairbairn says. Meaning, people tend to surround themselves with others who engage in similar behaviors - and in the case of alcohol, this means heavy drinkers surround themselves with others who also drink a lot.

When you drink, it can take a little bit of the edge off in social settings. It can help you form bonds with other people.”UI researcher Catharine Fairbairn

When Fairbairn was working as a clinician prior to embarking on her research in psychology, she had the opportunity to give people feedback about how much they were drinking and how their alcohol consumption compared with the broader population. And they were often surprised by what she told them.

“People came in saying they drank six drinks a day,” she says. “And I'd say, ‘That puts you in the top two percent of the U.S. population.' Across the board, people would be flabbergasted by that information.” They found it hard to believe, because in their everyday environments that behavior was normal.

Fairbairn says a good way for someone to determine whether they’ve crossed into dangerous territory with their alcohol consumption is to try to imagine life without alcohol. And perhaps try it for a week or so and see how it goes. They can also ask themselves questions, such as: Do I typically drink more than I intended to? Is alcohol interfering with my normal activities and my relationships? Am I finding myself in unsafe situations as a result of my drinking?

“Those are all very important questions,” she says. “But nobody wants to admit there’s a problem in their life. It’s so hard to make major changes.”