Study suggests problem drinking may stem from social cues

May 15, 2014
Addiction recovery is an individual experience that often requires the person with a history of drug or alcohol abuse to commit to different lifestyles. This may manifest through giving up on old friends or activities, but the person who enters drug rehab is often changed when that person emerges on the other side of a treatment program.

However, there is a social aspect to drug addiction. On the positive side, a strong network of supportive friends and loved ones can often mean the difference between sustained sobriety and behaviors that threaten relapse. On the other hand, according to a study conducted by researchers at the New York University Polytechnic School of Engineering and published in the journal Alcohol: Clinical and Experimental Research, people’s behaviors around the consumption of alcohol may be significantly changed by the presence of other friends. The findings may point to some factors involved in the development of problematic drinking.

Drinking affected by the presence of others

Of the various demographics affected by alcohol abuse, young people are highly susceptible to social factors when it comes to how much they drink. Some teenagers are even introduced to drinking through social pressures. However, according to the findings from the NYU study, social pressures may affect drinking behaviors even more than once thought.

The NYU researchers used a population of zebrafish to study how alcohol consumption changes in relation to social cues. In trials, a single zebrafish that was supplied with measured doses of ethanol behaved markedly differently alone than when in the presence of other zebrafish that had not been given any alcohol. At concentrations that researchers marked as “intermediate” or “high,” zebrafish that were supplied with alcohol swam almost twice as fast when they were introduced into a group of other fish.

Also, the alcohol-induced swimming speeds of the fish exposed to ethanol prompted the other fish to match the original animal’s swimming speeds. This was a clear example demonstrating how even a small dose of alcohol within a population can drastically affect large-scale behaviors.

“These results were very surprising,” Maurizio Porfiri, associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and director of NYU’s Dynamical Systems Laboratory, said in a statement. “It is clear that the untreated fish were matching the swimming speed of the alcohol-exposed fish, and this correlation was especially strong at an intermediate level of alcohol exposure. At very high or low levels, the influence decreases.”

Porfiri explained that these findings are particularly significant because it proves that the mere presence of alcohol in a situation may change the predicted behavior of individuals beyond their control.

Protecting youth from social pressure

This information should be provided to young people at risk of being in the presence of alcohol, as social pressures may make teenagers more susceptible to risky decisions with alcohol. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 39 percent of high school students in the U.S. drank some amount of alcohol during the last 30 days, and 22 percent binge drank over the same period of time.

Drinking at a young age can lead to several long-term issues, such as poor performance at school or work and abuse of other substances later in life. Also, the CDC explained that the younger a teenager is first exposed to substances like drugs and alcohol, the greater the chances of later complications become.

Considering the NYU findings, communicating to teenagers about the ways that alcohol can physically and socially affect situations can make the difference between healthy and destructive habits. By resisting the ways that alcohol changes social situations, children may be better equipped to handle alcohol responsibly as they age.

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