Insight article

Beware of the evil drink…

At The Storytellers one of our guiding principles is that stories shape our beliefs and our beliefs shape our behaviours. I was therefore fascinated to hear Kate Fox, a social anthropologist, on Radio Four last night talking about her work on the cultural aspects of alcohol consumption in the UK.

There’s a belief in this country that alcohol has magical powers – transforming ordinary law-abiding people into violent, disorderly sexual predators.  This belief is reinforced by the multitude of stories we hear about the antics of young binge drinkers on a Saturday night and indeed by the Government’s own advertising on the subject.

Kate and her research team have completed extensive scientific studies on the subject. Their astonishing conclusion is that alcohol itself does not drive this anti-social behaviour; instead it’s the cultural belief that alcohol has this effect on people that’s the real cause. When people drink alcohol they act in accordance with their beliefs about how one should behave when drunk. Their behaviour reflects, emulates and reinforces their pre-existing beliefs. What’s really interesting is when Kate and her team replaced people’s alcoholic drinks with non-alcoholic placebos, they continued to behave in exactly the same way. The presence or absence of alcohol was not the determining factor in the way people acted.

In other parts of the world where there are cultures with very different attitudes about the effects of alcohol, the resulting social behaviours are very different. This difference isn’t explained by the amount of alcohol consumed indeed there are countries where people drink more alcohol than in the UK, but which don’t suffer from the same culture of anti-social behaviour.

Kate’s conclusion was that if we want to address alcohol related anti-social behaviour, we should stop trying to reduce how much people drink and focus instead on changing people’s beliefs about how drinking alcohol affects our behaviour.

How many times have we shared or listened to stories about the antics of a good night out? We may not have realised it, but it’s these stories and not the alcohol that will shape our future behaviour.

Nailia Tasseel