Why Heavy Drinkers Decide to Change Their Alcohol Drinking

What It Takes to Make a Change—and What Gets In the Way

Group of friends sharing drinks in restaurant

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Heavy drinking is a habit that can creep up or develop as a result of lifestyle choices, such as work, friends, and activities. But most heavy drinkers choose to quit at some point, either on their own or with the help of a treatment or self-help program such as Alcoholic Anonymous (AA), the original 12-step program. So why do heavy drinkers decide to change their alcohol drinking?

Research I conducted with colleagues at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom showed that heavy alcohol drinking does not develop in a predictable, linear pattern. Instead, patterns of alcohol use vary a great deal from person to person, and even heavy drinkers typically adjust their alcohol intake as the situation requires. Interestingly, many of the same issues that make people want to drink more can also make them want to drink less.

What Makes Drinkers Want to Cut Back or Stop?

  • Roles — A new role, such as parenthood, was a reason many heavy drinkers gave for making changes.
  • Comparison with other drinkers — Some drinkers noticed they were drinking more than friends and family, which gave them cause to consider whether they were drinking too much.
  • Judgments about drinking — For some people, judging themselves, and their own drinking behavior provided motivation to change.
  • Advice to change — Professional advice to cut back on alcohol intake from a respected professional was considered sufficient grounds for changing drinking habits.
  • Money — Recognizing the expense of drinking would put some people off maintaining high alcohol levels.
  • Health — Severe health problems or even side effects of alcohol such as bloodshot eyes or hangovers were discouraging to many drinkers.
  • Body Weight — For those trying to lose weight, the recognition of the high calorific content of many alcoholic drinks was enough to make them want to cut back.

What Gets In the Way of Drinkers Cutting Back or Stopping Drinking?

  • Roles — Some professional roles make it hard for drinkers to avoid alcohol.
  • Comparison with other drinkers — Believing you drink a normal amount because it is similar to your peers, having a positive view of others who drink, and seeing other people’s drinking as more problematic than your own can all get in the way of recognizing you are drinking too much.
  • Judgments about drinking — Justifying your own drinking can be your biggest obstacle.
  • Advice to change — In contrast to professional advice, personal advice from non-professionals can actually strengthen a drinkers’ determination to continue drinking.
  • Health — Although much research shows the harms to health caused by alcohol, some heavy drinkers have the misguided belief that alcohol is good for them. Also, when health advice is given by professionals who don’t seem to be healthy themselves, it is not taken seriously.
  • Body Weight — Some drinkers use alcohol as a food substitute while they are trying to lose weight. This has been encouraged in the French Women Don’t Get Fat books, which also encourage the myth of alcohol as being beneficial to health.
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Additional Reading
  • Guiliano, M. “French Women Don't Get Fat: The Secret of Eating for Pleasure.” Vintage: New York. 2007.
  • Hartney, E. et al. “Untreated Heavy Drinkers: A Qualitative and Quantitative Study of Dependence and Readiness to Change.” Addiction Research & Theory, 11:317-337. 2003.