Positive Messages Effective at Reducing Drinking
A new study has suggested that messages focusing on the benefits of sobriety are more effective than traditional approaches for reducing drinking. The finding claims to call into question some of the typical approaches to discouraging drinking, which often focus on the negative consequences rather than the positive effects of staying sober. However, the study didn’t directly compare a negative message with a positive one, so the findings need more careful scrutiny before declaring positive messages to be more effective than negative ones
Comparing Strategies to Reduce Drinking
The study recruited 211 college students from England (aged 18 to 25, with an average age of 20), and looked at the effect of different interventions designed to reduce drinking. The students were randomly assigned to one of four interventions: imagining the positive outcomes of not drinking, imagining strategies for not drinking at a social occasion, imagining both the positive outcomes and required strategies, and completing a daily “drinking diary” to record their use. The researchers judged the effectiveness of the approaches based on their impact on weekly alcohol consumption, episodes of heavy drinking (in other words, binge drinking) and social occasions during which the individual didn’t drink. They took information on their drinking habits at the start of the study, after two weeks and after four weeks.
Positive Messages Effective at Reducing Drinking
Compared to those keeping drinking diaries, those who thought about positive messages or strategies that are necessary to avoid drinking heavily reduced both their weekly alcohol consumption and their frequency of binge drinking. Specifically, those who thought about positive outcomes of staying sober reduced their weekly consumption from an average of 20 units to 14 units, and imagining strategies for non-drinking reduced that group’s number of binge-drinking episodes per week from 1.05 to 0.73. For the combined condition, there was a difference but it didn’t achieve statistical significance, so the benefit observed could be due to chance.
Lead author Dr. Dominic Conroy commented that, “Our research contributes to existing health promotion advice, which seeks to encourage young people to consider taking ‘dry days’ yet does not always indicate the range of benefits nor suggest how non-drinking can be more successfully managed in social situations.”
The findings suggest that drinking diaries—documenting how much you consume—are not effective at helping people reduce their consumption, although you might assume that they would help people realize when they were drinking too much and encourage them to make a change. Instead, focusing on the benefits of not drinking and providing practical advice to help young people say no both firmly and politely, might be the best strategy for reducing drinking.
The study’s findings are generally being interpreted as showing that positive messages about sobriety are better than negative ones about drunkenness, but in actual fact no such comparison was made by this study. The findings do show that positive messages about sobriety reduce drinking (albeit by just 30 percent), but we have to look at other findings to consider the impact of negative messages.
The most commonly used negative messages are called “fear appeals,” aiming to discourage dangerous behavior by creating fear of the possible consequences, like showing somebody a pair of cancer-ridden, tar-stained lungs to stop them smoking or a car crash to warn of the dangers of drinking and driving. There is only limited research on fear appeals, but broadly speaking, there is little evidence for their effectiveness, and some suggest that fear appeals are counterproductive.
The basic reasons behind the observed lack of effectiveness of fear appeals are that they produce tension that even accompanying positive messages can’t counteract, that they promote mistrust when taken to extremes (such as implying a consequence is definitely going to occur) and may even encourage the behavior among those who want to take risks. A study from 1997 summed up the issues with fear appeals: “If the threat is too remote in time or too mild, people will not be motivated by it. If the threat is too strong, people may tune out the message, refuse to believe it or adopt a fatalistic attitude.”
There is some evidence for the effectiveness of fear appeal campaigns focusing on negative consequences, but—even prior to the release of this study—it was widely accepted that appealing to positive emotions can be just as effective and is much less likely to have unintended consequences.
Teaching Benefits of Staying Sober
So although the study didn’t directly compare the two, the fact that positive messages were shown to be effective and existing evidence shows no consistent benefit to negative fear-based messages does support the stated conclusion. This is mainly of use to groups organizing large-scale messages, but it also could be of use to parents concerned about their teens’ drinking: it’s better to focus on teaching the benefits of staying sober (and how to stay sober in the face of peer pressure) than to try to “scare them straight,” as many previous campaigns have done.
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