Why People Drink: Researcher Looks at Genetics, Peer Pressure and Coping Mechanisms – Healthline

Motives for drinking alcohol — such as coping with negative emotions or fitting in with peers — can influence not only how much a person drinks, but also their risk of developing problematic drinking.
While a person’s drinking motives can vary depending on the situation, a new study found that certain motives were consistent among university students across all four years of school.
The study also suggests that there may be a genetic basis to drinking motives that links them to alcohol consumption and alcohol use disorder (AUD).
AUD is a condition in which a person has a hard time stopping or controlling their use of alcohol in spite of the harmful effects it has on their health, relationships or job.
According to the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, nearly 15 million people ages 12 and older had AUD. This includes over 400,000 12- to 17-year-olds who had AUD.
Earlier research found that genetic factors are responsible for about 50% of a person’s risk of developing AUD.
However, the relationship between genes and problematic drinking is complex, with thousands of genetic variants involved, “each with very small effects,” wrote the authors of the new study.
To help understand the biological basis of alcohol misuse, the researchers sought to determine whether drinking motives act as an intermediary factor between a person’s genes and their patterns of alcohol consumption.
The new study was published Oct. 18 in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.
Drinking motives or basically the reason why a person decides to pick up a drink can be negative or positive.
They include more negative reasons including responding to unpleasant emotions (coping), an urge to fit in with peers (conformity) versus more postive reasons such as a desire to experience the pleasurable effects of alcohol (enhancement), or part of spending time with others (social).
Past research has linked drinking motives to patterns of alcohol consumption, including heavy drinking and problematic drinking.
“Drinking motives are thought to contribute meaningfully to both how much a person drinks and the alcohol-related problems a person might experience,” said Andrew Littlefield, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at Texas Tech University, who was not involved in the new study.
In addition, he said drinking motives are considered to be a more closely-related predictor of alcohol consumption and misuse, compared to other factors such as personality traits.
Jennifer P. Read, PhD, a professor and chair of the Department of Psychology at the University at Buffalo, said research has linked drinking motives to alcohol use and misuse over both the short-term and the longer-term.
For example, a person’s drinking motives on a given day is linked to their drinking behaviors on that day, she said. Likewise, drinking motives at one point in time can also predict drinking outcomes months or even years later.
Certain drinking motives can have a larger impact on drinking behavior than others.
“Generally speaking, coping motives — drinking to cope with or alleviate negative emotions or stress — have been most strongly implicated in harmful drinking outcomes,” said Read.
Littlefield said drinking to enhance positive moods can also have a stronger impact on alcohol outcomes, compared to motives such as drinking to fit in.
However, these relationships “might also vary depending on the sample one has collected,” he said, “such as a sample of college students versus a sample of individuals receiving treatment for substance use disorders.”
To examine the relationships between drinking motives and patterns of alcohol use, the authors of the new study recruited almost 10,000 first-year students enrolled at a US public university between 2011 and 2015.
Over 61% of the participants were women. In addition, around 50% were white, 19% Black, 16% Asian, and 6% Hispanic/Latino.
Participants completed an online questionnaire at the start and each following year that they were enrolled in university. The surveys covered alcohol use, symptoms of AUD and drinking motives.
The questionnaires also asked about relevant environmental factors — parental behaviors, peer behaviors, and exposure to trauma such as assault or natural disaster.
Researchers also collected saliva samples from participants. These were used to analyze participants’ DNA. Samples from over 6,000 students were included in the genetic analysis.
The results showed that students’ drinking motives were stable throughout the four years of university.
Certain environmental factors of alcohol use were linked to multiple types of drinking motives. Parents giving more autonomy was associated wtih lower levels of both positive and negative drinking motives.
Higher parental involvement was also associated with high levels of social and enchancement drinking motives basically meaning people in these cases were more likely to drink to have fun or feel good vs. drinking to cope.
Peer deviance — how many of a person’s friends engage in behaviors such as getting drunk and skipping school — was linked to higher levels of all motives except conformity.
In addition, exposure to trauma before going to university was linked to lower social motives, but higher coping motives.
Researchers also found connections between drinking motives and alcohol use outcomes. For example, drinking to cope was linked to AUD, while social and enhancement motives were linked to both alcohol consumption and AUD.
Using the saliva samples, researchers attempted to identify genetic variants underlying the drinking motives and tying them to patterns of alcohol use.
Some genetic variants were linked to both coping motives and AUD. In addition, certain genetic variants appeared to be linked to specific drinking motives.
However, given the small number of DNA samples analyzed, the results, while “promising,” are “largely inconclusive,” wrote the researchers.
“We conclude that our findings at this stage thus provide only modest insight into the biology underlying drinking motives and their potential genetic pathways to alcohol misuse,” they added.
The researchers suggest that additional studies are needed, with a larger number of DNA samples, in order to better understand the genetic basis of drinking motives in relation to alcohol use and misuse.
The type of genetic analysis used in this study is just one approach to determining the genetic basis for drinking motives and their impact on alcohol use.
Another type of study is one involving twins, which allows researchers to tease apart the influence that genetic factors versus environmental factors have on specific traits.
Using this approach, Littlefield and his colleagues found that the “genetic overlap between specific personality dimensions and alcohol use disorder symptoms can be accounted for by coping motives,” he said.
Our experts continually monitor the health and wellness space, and we update our articles when new information becomes available.
Current Version
Oct 18, 2022
Shawn Radcliffe
Edited By
Gillian Mohney
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