Is Drinking Contagious?

Our friends' habits may affect us more than we think

Hung over this morning? Blame your friend.

Turns out our friends’–especially our girlfriends’–tendency to toss back a few can be contagious. According to new research in this week’s Annals of Internal Medicine, you’re 50 percent more likely to drink heavily (defined as more than a drink a day if you’re female and more than two drinks a day if you’re a guy) if your friend does. And if a friend of a friend is a big boozer, your chances of following suit are more than a third greater.

Before you go blaming your beer-loving boyfriend, read on. Researchers found it’s actually heavy-drinking women– not their male counterparts–who impart this bad behavior on both their female and male friends. If a girlfriend drinks a lot, your chances of following suit go up a whopping 154 percent. But a guy’s heavy drinking habit seems to have no effect, according to the findings, which are based on three decades worth of data on 12,000 people followed in the Framingham Heart Study, a long-term research project at Harvard.

What is it about a woman who can drink us under the table that makes us such followers? Experts are stumped. While research on girls, teens and young adults has found them more likely than boys to be swayed towards drinking if their friends drink, boys who drink also influence their male friends, though to a lesser extent, says Susan Foster, vice president and director of policy research and analysis at the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.

She has another guess as to the power of a woman with a drink in her hand. “I wonder if the reason why a woman’s drinking behavior is more influential on her friends if she’s a heavy drinker than a man’s could have something to do with competition,” Foster says. “In other words, a male friend might think, ‘Oh, I’ve got to at least keep up with a woman,’ and another woman might think the same thing.”

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