This research was commissioned by Drinkaware to support the development of a new campaign. It was designed to establish what role Drinkaware could and should play in reducing consumption of alcohol among men aged 45 to 60 who are drinking more than 21 units in a typical week.
The research highlighted a number of important patterns in the drinking practices of this group (you can download the full report at the bottom of this page). For example, clear differences were apparent between social drinking and what we called ‘routine home drinking’, with opportunities to reduce consumption using the tools at Drinkaware’s disposal largely concentrated in the latter category.
The importance of mental models
One point that struck me personally was participants’ lack of clear mental models of what alcohol was doing in their bodies. There’s a big difference between knowing that alcohol does you harm and having a clear picture of how it does it.
Even when participants did have mental models of harm, they were not always accurate. For example, some thought alcohol harmed the kidneys rather than the liver: they understood what a filter does, believed alcohol needed filtering out of the blood, and remembered that the kidneys are the body’s filters.
With regards to other harms – such as damage to the cardiovascular system, a major risk for this group – participants had no idea whatsoever what alcohol might be doing in their bodies. And this lack of a mental model made it harder for them to take the risks seriously.
Interestingly, when I searched online for an answer to this question – how does alcohol harm the cardiovascular system – I could find nothing (at least not at the time). There were plenty of studies establishing the statistical link between consumption and outcomes like raised blood pressure or stroke. There were plenty of advice sites reporting those links. But there was nothing telling me what was actually going on in my body when I had a drink.
I believe this is a common issue in public health. For people with technical public health expertise, population statistics and attributable fractions provide real and engaging reasons to avoid a behaviour. They’re right of course: but you don’t win arguments by being right.
Showing the rest of us population statistics does not give us a compelling picture of what is going on in our individual bodies: and it’s the latter that might give us pause to thought as we reach for that second glass.