Changing your drinking: the science of alcohol

By Posted in Feelings and Emotions

The science of alcohol and behaviour change

We can probably all agree, from our personal experience and without any science, that changing human behaviour is difficult. It is doubly difficult with behaviours where the pleasures are instant, but the pain is far in the future and difficult to see. Alcohol is a good example: do you often think about the inevitable hangover the following day when ordering that fourth drink in the bar (personal confession: I don’t!)?

Economists have long been scratching their boffin heads with this dilemma: why aren’t people as rational as our theories say they should be? I’m happy to report that thanks to psychologists and other proper scientists, even the economists are slowly realising that people aren’t always completely logical, they are often driven by emotions, and their poor human brains aren’t always capable of mathematical precision when assessing costs and benefits.

Tools and techniques

There are many ways of thinking about the science of alcohol and behaviour change. At Club Soda, we use as our theoretical foundation the behaviour change taxonomy developed by Professor Susan Michie of University College London and her colleagues (Michie et al. 2013). The easiest way of thinking about the taxonomy is to see it as a complete list of all the different types of tools and techniques that have been used in helping people change something about their lives. It has 93 categories, including tools such as goal setting, feedback and monitoring, rewards, and social support.

Online tools for problem drinking

When looking for help with problem drinking, most people will probably first think about Alcoholics Anonymous, Swanswell, or other such face-to-face programmes. But there is good news about online tools as well – they have been proven to be effective too. I’ll mention just two examples. The first (Elison et al. 2014) is a small trial of Breaking Free Online, an “internet-based treatment and recovery program for problem alcohol and drug use”, which was shown to be effective in reducing alcohol use and cravings. Nine out of the 24 participants reduced their drinking, and ten quit completely. The second study (Riper et al. 2008), an evaluation of a Dutch website ( with a larger sample also showed good results: 17% of the website users reduced their drinking to within the recommended limits, with an average reduction of over 10 units per week.

Effectiveness of methods to reduce alcohol consumption

There is a lot more research available on the effectiveness of various methods of reducing your alcohol consumption; enough for another blog post on the science of alcohol and behaviour change, in fact. I think it’s safe to say that it is still an open question as to what methods work best. But there seems to be an agreement that using several tools at the same time is better than just using one.

At Club Soda, we are learning from all of this academic literature, and adding our own flavour to it. We are trying to offer our members as many tools and techniques as possible so that they can try out different things and see what works best for them. And then share their learning with everyone else in the club.

Articles mentioned in this blog post:

Sarah Elison, Lloyd Humphreys, Jonathan Ward, and Glyn Davies (2014) A pilot outcomes evaluation for computer assisted therapy for substance misuse — an evaluation of Breaking Free Online. Journal of Substance Use, Volume 19, No. 4 , Pages 313-318.

Susan Michie, Michelle Richardson, Marie Johnston, Charles Abraham, Jill Francis, Wendy Hardeman, Martin P. Eccles, James Cane, and Caroline E. Wood (2013) The Behavior Change Technique Taxonomy (v1) of 93 Hierarchically Clustered Techniques: Building an International Consensus for the Reporting of Behavior Change Interventions. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, Volume 46, Issue 1, pages 81-95.

Heleen Riper, Jeannet Kramer, Filip Smit, Barbara Conijn, Gerard Schippers and Pim Cuijpers (2008) Web-based self-help for problem drinkers: a pragmatic randomized trial. Addiction, Volume 103, Issue 2, pages 218–227


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