Study Finds That Young Drinkers Remember the Good, Downplay the Bad

A study from the University of Washington is shedding some light on a phenomenon that many of us may have some experience with.  The study shows that young adults acknowledge the positive effects from alcohol consumption and tend to gloss over the negative ones. It’s a sort of selective memory.

They remember that their jokes are funnier, they get on better with the opposite sex and their beer muscles are massive, but they tend to forget the hangovers, the bad sexual decisions (that whole chicken thing wasn’t a good idea) or those greasy late night diner binges.   This makes sense, otherwise most folks would end their drinking careers the morning after being introduced to Southern Comfort. 

Yup...that's Pliny the Younger. Those Washington folks are hardcore beer geeks!

The study asked 491 college students (drinkers and non-drinkers) how often they had experienced 35 different negative consequences of drinking (blackouts, hangovers, fights, lost belongings, calling in sick, etc.) and 14 positive effects of drinking (being the life of the party, the ability to stay up later, better sexual encounters, being a better dancer, etc.).  They also were asked how likely they thought these consequences (both good and bad) would be to happen in the future and how positive or negative they would be.

The outcome showed that college kids are optimistic. The students rated the upsides of drinking as more likely to happen again in the future and as outweighing the negatives.  It’s a finding the researchers call “rose-colored beer goggles.”  The researchers are hoping universities can use these findings to reevaluate their alcohol awareness programs.  Right now most programs focus on the negatives, which it appears many student don’t acknowledge.

I reached out to two of the researchers who created the study, Kevin King (a homebrewer and a major beer geek) and Diane Logan (not a beer geek, but we won’t hold that against her).  Kevin told me a little bit more about the study and tried to answer some of the questions I had about their findings.  He also told me they used a shot of Pliny the Younger in the press photo – a total geek move if there ever was one!

Here’s our exchange:

Can you tell us how the positives ranked? Interestingly, across drinkers and non-drinkers (or drinkers with no consequences), the rank order of perception of  “positive” consequences that was about the same.

Here’s the ratings among all drinkers: [Higher numbers are more positive]

Tell a funny story or joke and make others laugh 4.0425
Find it easy to make conversation in a situation in which you would usually have stayed quiet 3.7650
Approach a person that you probably wouldnt have spoken to otherwise

3.4325

Stand up for a friend or confront someone who was in the wrong

3.4050

Feel especially confident that other people find you attractive

3.4050

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I’d also love to hear what the top negative results were. The perception of the “least negative” consequences were pretty similar across drinkers and non-drinkers.

However, there were some interesting differences when you compare non-drinkers/drinkers with no consequences and the heaviest drinkers (top 25%). Notice that for the heaviest drinkers, the “top 5 least negative consequences” include tolerance and blackouts, which are symptoms of alcohol dependence.

Here are the ratings [Lower numbers are more negative]

Non-Drinkers or Drinkers with no-consequences (n=126)

Mean

Top 25% of those with drinking consequences (n = 131)

Mean

Feel guilty about your drinking

1.6825

Find you needed larger amounts of alcohol to feel any effect, or that you could no longer get High or drunk on the amount that used to get you high or drunk

2.0076

Get embarrassed physically (e.g., fall in public) because of your drinking

1.7063

Awaken in the morning after a good bit of drinking and find that you could not remember a part of the evening before

2.1298

have a headache (hangover) in the morning after you have been drinking

1.7222

Leave a party alone when you had originally planned not to

2.1374

Leave a party alone when you had originally planned not to

1.8889

Leave a party with people you did not know

2.1374

Eat a large amount of food late at night

2.2143

Eat a large amount of food late at night

2.6183

.

.

What kinds of actual consequences were reported?  Were they different between average drinkers and more hardcore ones?

In terms of the actual occurrence of the consequences, the most frequent for the moderate drinkers (bottom 75%) were:

Have you ever found you needed larger amounts of alcohol to feel any effect, or that you could no longer get high or drunk on the amount that used to get you high or drunk?
Have you ever been embarrassed physically (e.g., falling in public) because of your drinking?
Have you awakened the morning after a good bit of drinking and found that you could not remember a part of the evening before?
Have you felt very sick to your stomach or thrown up after drinking?
Have you had a headache (hangover) in the morning after you had been drinking?
Have you ever eaten a large amount of food late at night after you had been drinking?

While for the heaviest drinkers, it was a little different.

Have you not gone to work or missed classes at school because of drinking, a hangover, or an illness caused by drinking?
Have you felt very sick to your stomach or thrown up after drinking?
Have you ever found you needed larger amounts of alcohol to feel any effect, or that you could no longer get high or drunk on the amount that used to get you high or drunk?
Have you awakened the morning after a good bit of drinking and found that you could not remember a part of the evening before?
Have you ever eaten a large amount of food late at night after you had been drinking?
Have you had a headache (hangover) in the morning after you had been drinking?

Among all drinkers, the most severe (i.e. least common) consequences were:

Have you ever been arrested for drunk driving, driving while intoxicated, or driving under the influence of alcohol?
Have you ever been fired from a job or suspended or expelled from school because of your drinking?
Have you ever been arrested, even for a few hours, because of any drunken behaviors?
Have you ever lost friends (including boyfriends or girlfriends) because of your drinking?
Have you ever gotten into trouble at work or school because of drinking?

Generally we find that the least common consequences tend to happen among the most severe drinkers. In our study, we found that the “rose colored beer goggles” effect disappeared around the 75th percentile of experiencing consequences, which tells us that the heaviest drinkers, which also tend to be those who experienced the most severe consequences, may be finally becoming a little more realistic about the consequences of their use.

.

.

Is there a “tipping point” where people learn from the negative consequences?  Is it an event like a DUI, or perhaps they just get older and wiser?  What’s not clear is whether it’s the type of consequence (like DUI versus hangover) or just the accumulation of them that produces such a “tipping point”. Our data only looked at accumulation, but it’d be interesting to see if certain types are more or less likely to produce a realistic evaluation of one’s drinking.

I would think that some combination of getting older and wiser and gaining experiences (good and bad) are likely to help many people gain greater responsibility with their drinking. I think what’s interesting about our study is that it suggests that young adults (ages 18-22 or so) might be gaining less from their experiences than we might have expected. It would be interesting to see if these effects differ in older adults or younger teenagers.

.

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How does the data differ between genders?  We did not test for gender differences. It’s a great question! I did a quick check, and there didn’t seem to be any differences. It might be that the gender differences are hidden by other variables, but it does seem to me that we haven’t found as many gender differences in the etiology of alcohol problems as we’ve often hypothesized. Although men do drink more than women, the pathways to problem drinking seem to be pretty similar.

Remember, all these analyses are just quick and dirty runs, and aren’t part of the peer reviewed paper, so take them with a big grain of salt. But, I do hope they answer your questions in more detail.

So there you have it!  Sorry if that got a bit granular, but I dig stuff like this and Kevin was kind enough to elaborate for us.  He’s also agreed to answer any questions you folks might have in the comments. Thanks, Kevin!

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Categories: Lifestyle

Author:Jim

Craft beer nerd, frequent beer blogger and occasional home brewer.

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28 Comments on “Study Finds That Young Drinkers Remember the Good, Downplay the Bad”

  1. johnking82
    July 20, 2011 at 2:01 pm #

    I just look at the pictures of me dressed as Richard Simmons to know drinking led to poor choices. I think if he measured the gender differences (most studies do…don’t know why they didnt) their results would be very different. What journal was this published in, I’d like to see their research methods along with their possible areas for concern in the study?

    • July 20, 2011 at 2:49 pm #

      The paper was published online May 30 in Psychology of Addictive Behaviors. Here’s the abstract: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21639598

      And I recommend keeping that Richard Simmons picture on your fridge.

    • July 20, 2011 at 3:00 pm #

      BTW, they checked the gender differences and didn’t see any real difference in the data, except boys drink more.

  2. July 20, 2011 at 2:05 pm #

    Thanks for sharing this, Jim. This is some really interesting research, with implications far beyond the young drinkers in the study. Maybe they will branch out and do a side-by-side comparison with “veteran” drinkers like us. I know I tend to downplay the negative consequences after consuming too much craft beer . . .

    • Don
      July 20, 2011 at 2:43 pm #

      Yeah, like all the money it costs! Fail! 😦

    • July 20, 2011 at 2:51 pm #

      I’d like to see if we learn with age, or if the only difference is that we can afford better hooch!

      • July 20, 2011 at 4:29 pm #

        My money is on the latter.

        • July 20, 2011 at 5:02 pm #

          Quite literally.

  3. July 20, 2011 at 2:09 pm #

    Jim;

    IMO what we’re talking about here is a phenomenon bigger than just drinking. For this demographic (i.e., teens & young adults up to 25 years of age) any risky activity (and drinking in excess fits this category), if it provides a rush (i.e., triggers endorphins in the brain), will be hard to resist.

    This is because the risk assessment part of the human brain (which balances the rewards part) doesn’t fully develop until approximately the age of 25. Therefore, from the perspective of these young folks, there is no downside.

    Some real life examples highlighting this phenomenon:
    a) to quote the Australian Bureau of Statistics: “…19% of young men aged 18-24 years reported that they had engaged in risky/high risk drinking at least once a week during the last 12 months. This was double the comparable rate of regular risky/high risk drinking among men aged 25 years and over (8%).”
    b) to quote the CDC: “Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for U.S. teens”
    c) to quote the Shin Bet, “…suicide bombers are predominately single men…aged between 17 and 24.”

    When my son was still a teen, I can remember asking him “Why did you do so and so? You know that was a dumb decision don’t you?” His response was invariably “I dunno.”

    Goes a long way toward explaining the so-called generation gap doesn’t it?

    • Don
      July 20, 2011 at 2:46 pm #

      Yes, but you forgot to mention that they are invincible, so…its all good!

      • July 20, 2011 at 2:53 pm #

        Except those suicide bombers…not so much with the invincible for those fellas…

        • Don
          July 20, 2011 at 2:59 pm #

          Yeah, but don’t they get like 75 virgins and a goat for something like that? Psssht, TOTALLY WORTH IT!

        • July 20, 2011 at 3:03 pm #

          True – nobody can say he doesn’t get hooked up in the afterlife.

          Also, I’d like to start selling swamp land in the middle east. I think I’d do quite well…

  4. July 20, 2011 at 2:58 pm #

    Hi all,
    The study was published in Psychology of Addictive Behaviors: http://psycnet.apa.org/psycinfo/2011-11181-001/. We did include gender as a covariate in our analyses (so the differences in the levels of drinking across gender were accounted for). For the analyses in the paper, we didn’t look at whether the effects themselves differed across men and women because we didn’t have a strong theoretical reason to do so. As noted above, I did look in a quick and dirty way to see if the effects differed across gender, and didn’t find any evidence of it. But I think a more rigorous test in the future would be interesting.

    @massugu, that’s a great point; there are big differences in risk behaviors between teens and adults. What’s interesting is that teens don’t seem to actually evaluate the risks of their behaviors any differently than adults by about age 15 or so. What DOES seem to happen, though, is that they are SO much more sensitive to rewards, that their risk evaluation actually gets overwhelmed by their motivation for reward. At least, that’s what we think right now…this field is really still developing.

    I’m happy to answer more questions, and if you’d like to see the original article please email me at kingkm AT uw.edu

    Regards,
    Kevin King

    • July 20, 2011 at 3:01 pm #

      What he said. 🙂

    • July 21, 2011 at 3:36 pm #

      Thanks Kevin; I find the subject fascinating. I just wish legislators, judges and police would become more savvy in re these innate behavioral drivers and differences. (I also wish I’d been aware of them when my wife and I were raising our 3 kids–it would have made things a lot easier for all of us.)

      As for myself, I’ve gone thru the progression and maturation process. I finally decided, at about age 27 (late bloomer I guess) that there really was such a thing as too much of a good thing after overindulging in Jameson’s Irish Whiskey at a Xmas party. My wife later told me that that was the first time she had ever seen anybody actually turn green. Of course, having spent my late teens and early 20’s in the Army, it wasn’t the first time I had overindulged–but that’s a tale for another time.

      • July 21, 2011 at 4:14 pm #

        I’d like to thank Kevin as well – He’s a sharp dude.

  5. Jeff W
    July 20, 2011 at 4:04 pm #

    This “negative” thing with regard to drinking makes no sense to me at all. For starters, finding that I can drink more before getting drunk is fantastic! You mean I can have more delicious beer tonight? WooHoo! And “Feeling guilty about your drinking” ?!?! WTFBBQ? I’m lost here. The rest of the “negatives” are equally confusing.

    I think this whole concept of “Bad Drinking” is an urban myth and no one is ever going to believe it.

    • July 20, 2011 at 4:09 pm #

      I can guess how you would’ve scored on the study, Jeff… 😉

      • July 20, 2011 at 4:26 pm #

        Looks like you found Patient Zero.

  6. Don
    July 20, 2011 at 4:50 pm #

    And I just want to go on the record as saying that is like the worst picture EVER, in the history of this blog, and every other drinking blog!

  7. FatCatKC
    July 20, 2011 at 6:16 pm #

    You mean there’s negative consequences to drinking? What kind of hippie pole dancing research is this? I thought when you black out you become Tyler Dirden and take over the world. You guys can be “careful” all you want but I’m taking over the world one gas station attendant at a time.

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