Do Positive Alcohol Expectancies Have as Much Impact as Negative Expectancies?
New findings from an American research group indicate that frequent drinking is motivated to a significant extent by positive expectations of the effects of alcohol use rather than negative expectations.
Alcohol consumption is heavily motivated by conscious or unconscious expectations of alcohol’s physical and mental effects. Some alcohol-related expectations are “positive” in nature, while others have a “negative” quality. In a study published in May 2015 in the journal Addiction, researchers from four U.S. institutions compared the influence of positive expectations on the behaviors of frequent drinkers to the influence of negative expectations. These researchers found that positive expectations play a critical role in the behaviors of frequent alcohol consumers, especially prior to drinking sessions and in the early stages of drinking sessions.
Frequent drinking is a non-specific term sometimes used to describe hazardous patterns of alcohol intake. Not all frequent drinkers consume alcohol in risky amounts. However, regular intake of significant amounts of alcohol significantly increases the odds of participating in either of two dangerous drinking behaviors known as binge drinking and heavy drinking. Binge drinkers primarily expose themselves to serious, short-term alcohol-related harm by consuming enough beer, wine or liquor to reach a legal state of intoxication in two hours. In contrast, heavy drinkers primarily expose themselves to long-term harm in the form of diagnosable alcohol use disorder (alcoholism and/or alcohol abuse) by regularly drinking above recommended safe levels on a daily or weekly basis. Regular binge drinkers often qualify as heavy drinkers and thereby substantially magnify their overall level of risk.
It’s important to note that the risks associated with binge drinking and heavy drinking are calculated for adults of legal drinking age, not teenagers and other underage alcohol consumers. For a number of reasons, teens who drink in any amount expose themselves to an amplified level of alcohol-related harm. In descending order of frequency, alcohol binging and heavy drinking occur most often among adults between the ages of 21 and 25, adults between the ages of 26 and 29, and adults between the ages of 30 and 34.
Positive and Negative Alcohol Expectancies
A “positive” expectation regarding alcohol’s effects (known formally as a positive alcohol expectancy) is a conscious or unconscious belief that alcohol use produces benefits rather than harms. Specific benefits cited by alcohol users include increased ease of social interactions, heightened confidence levels and intensification of existing good moods. A negative expectation regarding alcohol’s effects (known formally as a negative alcohol expectancy) is a conscious or unconscious belief that alcohol use produces harms rather than benefits. Specific harms cited by alcohol users include hangovers and other short-term side effects, diminished social standing and long-term impairments of mental and physical function. Drinkers commonly maintain a mixture of positive and negative drinking expectations that vary according to a number of underlying factors.
Impact on Frequent Drinkers
In the study published in Addiction, researchers from Brown University, the University of Missouri, the Washington University School of Medicine and the Midwest Alcoholism Research Center used data gathered from 400 frequent alcohol consumers between the ages of 18 and 70 to help determine the specific contributions that positive alcohol expectancies and negative alcohol expectancies make to frequent drinkers’ consumption patterns. All of the study participants were asked to maintain diaries of their drinking attitudes and actual drinking behaviors for three weeks. Upon entry into the study, all of the participants also filled out questionnaires designed to give the researchers a picture of their basic expectations regarding the effects of alcohol.
The researchers concluded that, among frequent drinkers, positive expectations for alcohol’s effects start to rise just prior to the initiation of each drinking session, and they continue to rise throughout consumption of the first beverage during a drinking session. Conversely, negative expectations start to drop just prior to the initiation of each drinking session, and they continue to fall throughout consumption of the first beverage. The researchers also concluded that frequent drinkers who believe in the social benefits of alcohol use experience a notably larger increase in positive expectations. In addition, they concluded that frequent drinkers who believe in the social benefits of alcohol use actually feel an increased amount of pleasure while consuming their first drink.