Alcohol Use and Addiction: Fancy a Quick Drink?

Psychology 101: The 101 Ideas, Concepts and Theories that Have Shaped Our World - Adrian Furnham 2021

Alcohol Use and Addiction: Fancy a Quick Drink?

Drunkenness is simply voluntary insanity. (Seneca, Moral Epistles to Lucilius)

Man, being reasonable, must get drunk: The best of life is but intoxication. (Lord Byron, Don Juan, 1810)

Alcohol use and abuse is as old as man. It was drunk in Mesopotamia 5,000 years ago. The Bible, in both old and new testaments, has parable stories and warnings about the benefits and dangers of strong drink. The message it seems is that alcohol consumed in moderation is socially highly beneficial. Indeed, wine is at the heart of both Jewish and Christian rituals.

• Drink no longer water, but use a little wine for thy stomach’s sake and thine often infirmities. I Timothy 5:23.

• Wine is as good as life to a man, if it be drunk moderately: what is life then to a man that is without wine? For it was made to make men glad. Ecclesiasticus 31:27.

• Give strong drink unto him that is ready to perish, and wine unto those that be of heavy hearts. Proverbs 31:6.

Nearly (but not all) societies discovered alcohol and developed social conventions, morals and laws for regulating and consuming it. Climate, geography, economics, local customs and laws all influence national patterns of drinking. Immigrant groups take their patterns of drinking with them when they move, but tend, over time, to pick up local drinking habits.

Further, they usually attempt to instil these behavioural rules in their children by a variety of means. In most European countries, about 90 per cent of the population drink alcohol primarily to socialize, celebrate and relax. Many quote studies that show the health benefits of moderate drinking. The alcohol industry is huge and employs around one million people globally and generates £7bn in taxes per year.

The psychological effects of alcohol are well known. Alcohol makes the drinker more self-assured and self-accepting. It has been called a paradoxical stimulant because although it is pharmacologically a depressant it seems to act as a social stimulant making drinkers less inhibited and more sociable. Alcohol has symbolic and ritualistic uses. It is often used to give an enhanced sense of group cohesiveness, especially among the young.

There are many theories about the causes of alcoholism and alcohol abuse, including biological, familial, cultural and psychological theories. We know that younger people (18—34 year olds) drink more heavily than older people (over 55-year-olds). Males drink more heavily than females. Younger groups are more likely to drink in bars/pubs but this declines as people get older. Middle-class people drink less but on more occasions than the working class. Certain trades are associated with heavy drinking and alcohol abuse: alcohol producers and retailers, heavy manual workers, business executives, travelling salesmen, journalists, entertainers, seamen and construction workers.

Psychologists and psychiatrists have come up with criteria for alcohol and all other substance abuse:

1 Tolerance: a need for markedly increased amounts of the substance to achieve intoxication or desired effect and/or markedly diminished effect with continued use of the same amount of the substance.

2 Withdrawal syndrome for the specific substance, or the same substance is taken to relieve or avoid withdrawal symptoms.

3 The substance is often taken in larger amounts or over a longer period than was intended.

4 A persistent desire and/or unsuccessful efforts to cut down or control use.

5 Much of the person’s time is spent in activities necessary to obtain the substance, or recover from its effects.

6 Important social, family, occupations or leisure activities are ignored or reduced because of substance use.

7 Substance use is continued despite knowledge of persistent or recurrent physical or psychological problems that are likely to have been caused or exacerbated by the substance.

Nowadays, we know many things about alcohol abuse. Consider the following passage from the American Psychiatric Association Diagnostic Manual. (DSM-IV) (pp.201—3).

1. Specific Culture, Age and Gender Features

The cultural traditions surrounding the use of alcohol in family, religious, and social settings, especially during childhood, can affect both alcohol use and patterns and the likelihood that alcohol problems will develop. Marked differences characterize the quantity, frequency, and patterning of alcohol consumption in the countries of the world. In most Asian cultures, the overall prevalence of Alcohol-Related Disorders may be relatively low, and the male-to-female ratio high… Low educational level, unemployment, and lower socioeconomic status are associated with Alcohol-Related Disorders, although it is often difficult to separate cause from effect.

2. Prevalence

Alcohol Dependence and Abuse are among the most prevalent mental disorders in the general population.

3. Course

The first episode of Alcohol Intoxication is likely to occur in the mid-teens, with the age at onset of Alcohol Dependence peaking in the 20s to mid-30s. The large majority of those who develop Alcohol-Related Disorders do so by their late 30s.

4. Familial Pattern

Alcohol Dependence often has a familial pattern, and at least some of the transmission can be traced to genetic factors. The risk for Alcohol Dependence is three to four times higher in close relatives of people with Alcohol Dependence. Higher risk is associated with a greater number of affected relatives, closer genetic relationships, and the severity of the alcohol-related problems in the affected relative.

Though debatable, researchers have identified different personality patterns associated with alcoholics:

1 The Immature Personality: self-centred, poor at relationships, impulsive. They drink to escape the realities of the grown-up world so different from that of their imagination.

2 The Self-Indulgent Personality: The over-protected child can fail to learn self-confidence and self-reliance. They drink to reduce personal discomforts which arise whenever personal wishes are frustrated. Alcohol is available, dependable and always gratifying.

3 The Sexual Problems Personality: Those who feel sexually inhibited and those who are deviant may drink to achieve courage and disinhibition.

4 The Self-Punitive Personality: People who repress strong emotions like anger and aggression find drink releases their hostile impulses.

5 The Stressed Personality: These people drink to give themselves a quick release, social confidence and (or a release) from social inhibition.


DSM III (1987). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 3rd edition. Washington: American Psychiatric Association.