“Want a Drink? Go on, you know you want to.” – Peer pressure to drink alcohol among UK adults

With pubs reopening in England this last weekend after a three-month lockdown, people have rushed to town centers for their social night out. Feeling pressured to have that drink? A study published today in BMC Public Health summarizes insights into peer pressure among adults in the UK based on a review of existing qualitative research. In this blog one of the study authors, Dr Stephen Dombrowski, presents five key lessons from the study.

You have probably been in situations where someone offers you an alcoholic drink and you feel like you have to drink it. Or perhaps you offer people a drink and make sure that they join in the fun. Peer pressure to drink alcohol is common in our everyday lives; from parties, your local pub, to nowadays COVID-19 pandemic friendly social distancing beers on Zoom with your mates.

Based on our systematic review of 13 qualitative research studies here are five key lessons:

1. Peer pressure is not just experienced by adolescents and young people:

A common perception is that peer pressure exists mainly in young people. However, peer pressure can affect people of all ages. The review found the adults often saw themselves as ‘older and wiser’ compared to when they were young. But many still experienced pressures to drink and continue drinking. Who hasn’t had the offer of ‘one for the road’?

2. People can feel threatened by peer pressure:

Peer pressure experiences varied from friendly banter to aggressive forms of pressure where people felt alcohol was ‘forced on you’. Being encouraged to ‘keep up’ with others’ drinking was a common reason for drinking too much.

3. Peer pressure can have a negative impact:

Ironically, to get rid of peer pressure many people gave in and drank more alcohol. They either had a drink when they didn’t want to drink, or drank more than they had intended. Drinking alcohol in response to peer pressure was seen as ‘caving in’. Most people who drank as a result of peer pressure regretted this decision later.

4. Our wider social context matters to build and keep up peer pressure:

Drinking provided connections to other people, and those who didn’t drink were often seen as boring or outsiders.

The social surroundings often influenced peer pressure to drink. Drinking was seen as ‘a sociable thing’ – as normal and helping you to fit in. For men, drinking could also be seen as a way to show their masculinity, which included ‘drinking like a man’ and choosing manly drinks.  Drinking provided connections to other people, and those who didn’t drink were often seen as boring or outsiders.

5. People develop strategies to deal with peer pressure.

Many reported using strategies to avoid pressure. Strategies included ‘nursing your drink’, drinking alcohol-free options which mimic alcoholic in flavor and appearance, or driving their car to provide an excuse for not drinking which would usually be accepted. Some people who did not drink much alcohol ‘came out’ out about their drinking preference, but this seemed to be rare. Others selected their group of friends to make sure it included non-drinkers or those who only drank moderate amounts.

The next time that you’re at a party, in the pub or having social distancing beers on Zoom, will you recognize when you are pressured to drink? Will you cave into the peer pressure, or have a strategy to deal with it? And what can you do to make sure that people don’t feel like they have to drink alcohol if they don’t want to?

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