Go on, have another

It’s easy to mock social scientists, but sometimes they do lay themselves open to it.

Take this week’s study from the Medical Research Council/Chief Scientist Social and Public Health Sciences Unit in Glasgow, published in Sociology of Health and Illness. It reveals that some people aged 25 to 44 drink too much and may be encouraged to do so by their friends.

It is based on 36 self-selected respondents interviewed as eight focus groups, each group consisting of people who already knew each other socially. Half reported drinking over the recommended weekly limits (21 units for men, 14 for women) and of these six were drinking harmful amounts (over 50 units for men and 35 for women). They all came from western Scotland.

The group was selected in a variety of ways: by flyers handed out in pubs or on the street, by e-mail invitations asking people to recruit friends and colleagues, by posters on community notice boards and in doctors’ surgeries, and by phoning community groups and advertising on community websites. It wasn’t easy, the research team admits.

What they finished with is not a random sample, nor necessarily a representative one, so one wouldn’t expect it to mirror the behaviour of those interviewed for the General Lifestyle Survey, among whom, in 2009, 26 per cent of men and 19 per cent of women in this age group reported drinking more mean weekly units than their respective recommended limits. But it hardly matters: this isn’t a study about how much people drink, but why. We don’t need to be told that binge-drinking and drunkenness occur among older adults – we already know that.

The conclusion is a bit of an anti-climax. “Older adults find it hard to say no to a drink in social situations” says Dr Carol Emslie, one of the research team. Go on! These are drinkers we’re talking about, meeting socially, possibly in licensed premises, or at a party in somebody’s home. What else are they there for? The quiz? Admiring the new curtains?

The study further finds that people make excuses to say no, such as “I’m on a diet”. That’s good manners rather than an insight into human psychology. People always make excuses to reject a well-meant but undesired invitation.

The conclusion reached by Professor Dame Sally Macintyre, director of the unit, is that while younger people who drink excessively can cause visible disruption, “older adults tend to drink behind closed doors where their behaviour is hidden from society”.  

No doubt it’s reprehensible for friends to encourage you to drink more than the Government recommends. But how greatly would you relish the company of those constantly insisting you’d had enough? What this study tells us is that alcohol is a social lubricant occasionally indulged in to excess. We might already have guessed that.