Friday 27 March 2015

Why we drink

Maybe it's because I went to an econ grad programme where Geertz was on the syllabus, but anthropology and economics always seemed pretty complementary to me.

Anthropologists tend towards thick narratives describing the rituals we undertake in hopes of understanding the function they serve. Economists think about what ultimate good is being pursued in any action and how behaviours change with changes in the relative costs of undertaking different activities that further those ends. Whatever you might think about the rituals undertaken by your group, or somebody else's group, if you don't understand the functions they serve, you're going to mess things up if you blunder in with policies meant to change things.

And so we come to drinking rituals. Why do people go out in groups and consume alcohol together before engaging in particular types of normally proscribed behaviours? If some young men drink excessively and take dumb risks, might there be any underlying reason?

Anthropologist Anne Fox surveyed Australian and New Zealand drinking cultures for Lion; her report is hosted at Lion's website.

One of Anne's very good points is that alcoholic disinhibition effects are culturally constrained. There are prescribed sets of things that are allowed or excused while drunk, with others very much not.
The phrase “it loosens (or takes away) your inhibitions” is like a magical spell that releases drinkers from the normal rules of behaviour. Interestingly, the social rules of alcoholic disinhibition allow for certain behaviours but not others: no one becomes so disinhibited and ‘out of control’ that they steal or pickpocket from others, for example. Most people would not excuse theft because the person was drunk. Neither is it acceptable to insult or injure vulnerable members of society such as the elderly, handicapped or children. But taking off ones clothes, urinating (but not defecating), shouting, fighting, singing, flirting, and even going home with the ‘wrong’ person – are all blamed on the drink.
That isn't to say that these cultural issues are easily changed. But I do worry that public ad campaigns and public education campaigns highlighting all the nasty things people do while drunk, instead of modelling appropriate drinking behaviour: they may reinforce norms about what drunken behaviour looks like rather than counter them. A lot of the recent NZ public service ads on alcohol have been good on this front, like ghost chips.

I know a lot of the anti-alcohol brigade hates the paper, viewing it as trying to shirk blame from alcohol or divert attention from their preferred policies.

But there are important points in here. If young people drink to overcome social anxiety, then maybe we should worry about stronger substitutability between alcohol and other anxiety relievers than we otherwise might have (though the strength of such things remains an empirical question). If adults get drunk together as a form of social bonding and trust building, what of that is forgone in population-based measures hammering on all forms of consumption?

And, Fox's focus group work suggests areas worth trying in information campaigns. I know that information campaigns targeting kids have not proven particularly effective, but perhaps they've not been hitting the right messages. Fox writes:
It is vital that parents and teenagers understand how large amounts of alcohol can negatively affect a developing brain, and that brain development continues until around age 21. Young people we spoke with assumed that the reason for the under-18 prohibition was the impact of alcohol on behaviour. This simply led to exaggerated rebellion and resentment, as evidenced by the following typical comment:
“Before I was 18 I thought it was so hypocritical that we couldn’t drink. The grownups would get drunk at the weekends and not let us have any so we used to sneak it and steal it all the time and feel so clever doing it right under their noses! When my Dad caught me drinking with a friend when I was 15 he yelled at me and I yelled back ‘well you do it!’ and he said ‘Yes but I know how to handle it.’ That is so hypocritical. Even then I could handle it better than he did!” – Female, 22.
In focus groups where it was requested of us, at the end, we shared information about the devastating impact of drunkenness on brain development. This was invariably met with stunned silence followed by choruses of “why didn’t anyone tell us?”
Practical suggestions for reducing night-time violence? Minimising the stuff that causes frustration and conflict: good availability of clean and safe toilets; good availability of late-night food service; visible but not heavy-handed policing; fines for infringement of public order (drunk & disorderly); and, decent transport options late at night.

Fox also points to parts of the alcohol-aggression literature that I hadn't seen before. The common lab experiments there seem to provide alcohol in varying doses, then have participants react to a fictitious opponent's moves in different kinds of games. For example, if a fictitious opponent steals from your earnings or endowment, you (as subject) could respond by ignoring the opponent or punishing the opponent where punishment is costly.

Increased punishment is taken as evidence of aggression in these experiments, but it's manifestly unclear to me that it should be taken as such. The experimental economics literature looks at altruistic punishment, where those in a public goods game can pay to punish a defector who hurts group performance. Punishment is there viewed as a second-order public good: if it is costly to you to punish someone who is behaving in ways that hurt the group, your punishment is altruistic, not aggressive.

There are other kinds of studies drawing links between alcohol and aggressiveness, but I worry that lab experiments taking punishment as aggression might be missing an alternative explanation.

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