Why do people drink?

Experts have agreed that “the psychological functions of alcohol are determined primarily by its anaesthetic effect -relief from pain and fatigue, and reduction of anxiety. So what better excuse than to gather at the bar or pub at the end of a hard day’s work!

Funnily, non-drinkers will never realize that the tastes of alcoholic drinks have nothing so special about them. In fact they are bitter, pungent, irritating and cause smarting pain or a burning sensation. Men were the first to like these masochistic challenges; the taste is one thing, but the mental kick they get from such beverages is what they yearn for.

On one side we have teetotallers and on the other we have alcohol drinkers (e.g. about 40% in the USA). The former are those who can live with their finer emotions and reasoning while channelling their paradoxical feelings and thoughts to better function. Having learned from their parents, teachers and society how to control their inner pains, they can manage their losses, their deceptions, their sentimental failures and live at peace with them. They have happy reminiscences, and need no stimulant to relive their poignant flashbacks. They have no major psychological setbacks which would keep them in a world of limbo, nor have they serious childhood tragedies which they want to forget or downplay. And they can manage their stress with the aid of religious prayers, proper relaxation and self-analysis.

Action of alcohol

But for the drinkers, pharmacological books will tell us how alcohol drank in graded volumes will first send them into a sense of well-being, slight elation, euphoria and mild hypnosis while inhibiting emotional distress — all coinciding with a rise in the level of serotonin and dopamine in the brain. But as he increases the dose, the drinker gradually descends into some form of self-pity, mild depression and more confusion, with his deeper, more basic emotions interfering with his imagination.

Physiologically his muscles get weaker, affecting those of the eyes too, so that the drinker cannot focus properly. His tongue becomes heavy, and refuses to obey to cerebral commands leading to slurred speech. His gait becomes wobbly. Doing simple mental task gets complicated. The judgment capacity gets distorted and evaluation of spatial orientation becomes overconfident. Reaction time, which overconfidence overestimates, slows down and can send the drinker into total tragedy.

Psychologically, reasons why people drink or ultimately become alcoholic have been short-listed.

Most drinkers would remember how at the time of puberty they started to experiment on themselves, looking on drinking as a normal developmental transition, always defying rules and paternal authority. Yet they could have given in to curiosity or to peer pressure, perhaps even followed a model set by elders whom they had imitated. As the individual grows older what better excuse than to release the stress of modern civilization imposed upon him than indulging in more alcoholic drinks.

Things are made worse by culturally normalized alcoholic traditions – as in countries like Ireland – where the stuff is easily accessible. Soon the drinkers will realize that alcohol provides an escape from unpleasant reality. The younger they are the more they live under the illusion of acquiring a good, real experience; they even think that they could get a sense of bravery.

On the other hand experts have agreed that “the psychological functions of alcohol are determined primarily by its anaesthetic effect; chief among these functions are relief from pain and fatigue, and reduction of anxiety”. So what better excuse than to gather at the bar or pub at the end of a hard day’s work!


But as society faces relentless problems related to alcohol, some experts have tried to look at the problem from a motivational perspective. Whenever we have a goal, then the force that drives us to pursue that goal is the motivation. ‘Where does this feeling of resolve come from? The answer is the overall benefit of a goal pursuit, to which two factors contribute — the subjective value of the goal pursuit, and the perceived likelihood of a successful goal pursuit. In other words, the strength of people’s commitment to something depends on its value to them and the chance that the value will, in fact, occur. The relationship between these two factors is multiplicative. This means that there will be no motivation to the goal pursued if the value of the goal is zero, no matter how high the likelihood of success. Similarly, there will be no motivation if the expected chance is quite low.’

In sum, the motivational perspective predicts that people will be motivated to use addictive substances to the extent they expect that doing so will result in desirable effects that they want to achieve. Otherwise, they would not find it so appealing

Some artists, to do away with inhibition, indulge in some drinks to have a different view of their own conceptions; by drinking lightly they relax their serious concentration and allow their mind to wander and view a certain problem from different angles – and thereby usher in some form of creativity, until they discover solutions to their problems.

Characteristics of drinkers

Psychologists have further discovered that frequent drinkers had previously exhibited certain common personality characteristics since their childhood, ranging from “hyperactivity, thrill seeking, withdrawn or depressed they may exhibit aggressiveness, anxiousness or rebelliousness – sometimes leading to difficulty to avoid harm or harmful situations or a tendency to give up to dis-inhibition or disruptiveness”.

As the disturbed children turn into adults they arrive at the chronological age at which society demands and expects emotional maturity accompanied by adult behaviour but the individual, being emotionally immature, makes a sorry attempt to satisfy these demands by a few futile and inadequate gestures and when he fails – he will take to alcohol regularly. ‘The common pattern in these histories is one in which the psychological crime of parental loving dominance was perpetrated against the child. The aftermath is obvious. The emotionally immature individual makes a sorry attempt to satisfy these demands by a few futile and inadequate gestures. He fails. Society begins to exact the penalty for such failure. Perhaps the remainder of the picture, its alcoholic component, is a matter of chance. But it is a chance in which the dice are loaded, since alcohol is not only the most rapidly acting solvent of unpleasant reality, but is also the most available and least socially reprehensible of the techniques for evading reality.’

Alcohol provides the escape from unpleasant reality through its depressing effect on the central nervous system. The individual thus becomes less aware of the distressing situation which confronts him. “Although the craving for alcohol may have had its origin in social, domestic, economic, or other uncertainties, the paradoxical fact remains that the alcoholic feels secure when under the influence.”

OM Jellinek did so much research on alcoholism that some people wanted to call chronic alcoholism ‘Jellinek disease’. He had summarized the various proposed reasons for such ‘palsy of the will’ or the ‘disease of the will’ as follows: “to overcome shyness and awkwardness”, “to escape from life’s situations which the patient cannot face”, “to find a way of rebelling”, “to obtain pleasure”, to serve as a “’pacifier’ for physiological and psychological tensions”, to “escape” from a “sense of inferiority”, to promote “compensation”, “to modify emotional experience such as fear or inferiority”, “to evade pain”, “to silence depressive effects”, to permit “a flight from reality”, to provide for “liberation of that part of the personality which is kept in check by convention”, to provide “a means of securing — for however a short time — some way out of the prison house of reality back to the Golden Age”, to provide “an escape from the responsibility and burden of mature emotional life and its decisions”, to furnish “a means of realizing daydreams”, to serve as a “pacifier for disappointment and rage”, to “alleviate and narcotize the many mental conflicts”, and to provide “an escape to the blissful state of infantile omnipotence.”

But the treachery of indulgence in alcohol is that when the effects of the alcohol wear off, the individual realizes that his environmental situation is even worse than before he became intoxicated. Not only has the alcohol failed to relieve the unpleasant factor, whatever it was, but it has left its victim ‘chagrined for having tried to find an escape rather than bravely facing the issue and attempting a rational solution. Also he is less able to devise a reasonable solution to his difficulty. It is therefore only natural that he repeats the indulgence, and thus perpetuates the stupor which gives him relief from his sense of inadequacy. Thus a vicious cycle is established which is most difficult to break. One indulgence demands another, until finally the victim loses all interest in making a proper adjustment in life.


* Published in print edition on 20 July 2018

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