Is Drinking Contagious?

Our friends' habits may affect us more than we think

The study’s authors from Harvard Medical School and the University of California, San Diego, have a different idea. In their paper, they speculate that seeing a woman drink a lot may alter our perception of what a “normal” amount is to imbibe, because women are typically thought of as lighter drinkers. Consequently, a woman who drinks more than what the government deems safe gives us tacit permission to follow suit.

Pals who are teetotalers subtly tone down our own drinking too, but their positive influence isn’t as powerful as other friends’ wilder ways. If your friend stays on the wagon, you’re 29 percent more likely to abstain yourself, and 21 percent more likely to stick with soda if a second-degree connection does. The influence of a third-degree acquaintance is much weaker, giving you only a 5 percent increased chance of staying sober. Surrounding yourself with moderate drinkers exerts only a small effect on your own habit, they found, increasing the likelihood you’ll follow suit by just 6 percent.

One of the study’s authors, Niels Rosenquist, M.D., Ph.D., says it’s not clear why seeing our friends indulge affects our own behavior more than watching them hold back. But just as the same researchers showed previously that having a friend quit smoking can spur us to do the same, so did they demonstrate that drinking less was at least somewhat contagious.

Isn’t this all very obvious? Rosenquist admits the results are “highly intuitive,” but they don’t simply mean that we become friends with people because they share our interests–including drinking. “No question that that’s part of the issue,” says Sandro Galea, chair of epidemiology at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. But, “It’s not simply that we gravitate to people like us. The general feeling is not that having similar tendencies draw people together, but that people influence each other when they are together.”

In other words, our friends are more apt to rub off on us than we are to select them because they’re similar to us.

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