Normative misperceptions about alcohol use in the general population of drinkers

First published: 10/05/2019 | Last updated: May 20th, 2019

Aims:

To investigate (i) the extent to which normative misperceptions extend from college students and heavy alcohol users and exist in the general population of drinkers in four English-speaking countries and (ii) whether any associations exist between normative misperceptions about alcohol use with socio-demographic and drinking variables.

Design/setting:

Cross-sectional online survey (Global Drugs Survey-2012) conducted globally, drawing on data obtained from Australia, Canada, the UK and the US.

Participants:

9,820 people aged 18 and over who had all consumed alcohol in the last year.

Measurements:

The survey included the 10-item AUDIT questionnaire (which assessed alcohol consumption, harmful drinking and alcohol dependence), socio-demographic assessment and a question assessing beliefs about how one’s drinking compares with others. Associations were analysed by linear regression models.

Findings and conclusions:

Nearly half of the general population of drinkers (46.9%; 95% CI: 45.9%, 47.9%) underestimated the proportion of other people who consume less alcohol than them. 25.4% of dependent alcohol users and 36.6% of harmful alcohol users believed their alcohol consumption to be average or less than average. Underestimation was more likely among those who were: younger (16-24; p<0.001), male (p<0.001), from the UK (versus the US; p<0.001), less well educated (without post-16 qualifications; p=0.003), white (p=0.035), and unemployed (versus employed; p<0.001). Respondents at lower levels of alcohol risk had significantly lower normative misperception scores than those who were at higher levels of alcohol risk (p<0.001).

Underestimating one’s own alcohol consumption relative to other drinkers is common in Australia, Canada, the UK and the US, with a substantial minority of harmful drinkers believing their consumption to be at or below average. This normative misperception is greater in those who are younger, male, less well educated, unemployed, white, from the UK, and high-risk drinkers.

Co-Authors

Mr David Crane (Research Department of Clinical, Educational and Health Psychology, UCL, London, UK), Prof Susan Michie (Research Department of Clinical, Educational and Health Psychology, UCL, London, UK), Prof Robert West (Cancer Research UK Health Behaviour Research Centre, University College London, London, UK), Dr Jamie Brown (Cancer Research UK Health Behaviour Research Centre, University College London, London, UK), & Dr Adam Winstock (Institute of Psychiatry, National Addiction Centre, King’s College London, London, UK)

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Dr Claire Garnett