Never again…. Or maybe not. Why people repeat those binge-drinking revelries

Dominika Osmolska Psy.D.'s picture
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Binge drinking is a category of substance abuse all its own, and it is a formidable phenomenon among college-aged kids. While it is primarily engaged in by novice drinkers who are younger – and presumably better equipped to absorb the shock of alcohol saturation – it is also common with more experienced partiers. No matter how you slice it, binge drinking leaves a trail of wreckage in its wake – mythical hangover headaches, property damage, sexual misconduct, risky behaviors and/or public humiliation. Given these daunting consequences, why do we not heed our own resolve to “never do it again”?

Setting aside the very real predisposition to alcoholism, why is it that people are willing to overlook past misdeeds committed under the influence and swill back shots of tequila within a matter of weeks, days, even hours of their resolution?

According to a new paper authored by Diane Logan and psychologists at the University of Washington, people are enticed to overindulge -- yet again -- for two reasons. First, last night’s drunken revelries seem more fun and cool than they might have appeared to an onlooker. This is because our recollection of the events is still subjective and colored – nay, blurred – by the intoxicating liquids. This morning’s hangover, while feeling nasty, is seen as the price of what still feels, experientially, like a whole lot of fun. Whether sober witnesses would agree is up for serious debate.

Second, all those unpleasant consequences of our drinking, in the form of cuts, bruises, soiled clothes, broken windows, or even smashed cars are rationalized away as not as bad as they may look. After all, it wasn’t ME who did it; rather, it was the Seriously Drunken Me who did it, and that’s not really me. And besides, it happens to lots of people. Even when they aren’t drunk.

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In short, our recollection of a boozy night is tinted by what psychologists call “positive memory bias,” while our revised assessment of the concrete damage perpetrated comes through a handy psychic tool called “cognitive dissonance.”

Despite these fancy terms, we all know first hand what they mean. Positive memory bias is a pervasive tendency of the memory process to minimize the bad and maximize the good. When we recollect a particularly fun-filled incident or period of time from our childhoods, for example, we will have a tendency to remember the positive aspects and to inhibit the negative.

Cognitive dissonance is a cousin of positive memory bias inasmuch as it is another of the psyche’s mechanisms to overlook troubling details – in this case, contradictions. Cognitive dissonance accounts for why we can be told one thing but believe another, such as making fun of Harold Camping’s prediction for the end of the world on May 21st on the one hand, while harboring seemingly irrational suspicions that he may, just may, be right. In the case of binge drinking, confronted with the indisputable truth of our mayhem, one part of us acknowledges the damage, while another, quite vocal part says, nah, it isn’t “real” because that was not the “real” us anyway.

“It’s kind [of] where the brain is at battle with itself,” said Logan, lead author and a UW clinical psychology grad student. “So if I’m a good, upstanding person, those (bad behaviors) just don’t quite fit together. Either I have to change my view of myself or I have to change my view of the actual activity that occurred.”

Cognitive dissonance accounts for much of what is apparently contradictory in human nature and motivation. None of us are a monolithic “I” – rather, we are a composite of an infinite number of “I’s” competing for different, sometimes opposite aims. The responsible, upstanding “I” sometimes has to lose out to the drunken slob “I.”

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