Getting “Unstuck”in Our Thinking about Drinking

This is a copy of aletter I sent to the Council of Southeast Pennsylvania regarding a recentnewsletter – see newsletter at

Thank you forsending the recent SEPA Council newsletter; Binge Drinking is a NationwideProblem.  Although the newsletter points out some obvious issues ofconcerns regarding drinking, I write to share some thoughts on which I wouldappreciate your reaction if not those of your colleagues at the Council.

First, as importantas the shared information is, the newsletter’s design and format presents it ina classic “scare tactics” approach.  From the two photos—one of the youngmale whose head is on the bar in desperation if not passed out and the other ofthe dower looking EMT, complete with stethoscope around the neck, perched in frontof an ambulance—to the headline itself, complete with exclamation point, theCouncil’s proactive message about S-BIRT and its evidence-based approach toaddressing high-risk and dangerous drinkers is somewhat lost in the impliedmessage of concern if not danger.

Next, as much as theterm “binge drinking” has been accepted as part of the lexicon used to describehigh-risk and dangerous drinking, it is nonetheless a term that is perceived asbeing ludicrous by underage and young “of age” drinkers not to mention becalled into question by many clinicians who view a binge as being an extendedperiod of excessive use rather than consuming 4+/5+ drinks in a 2-hour periodof time type of drinking.  NOTE: I do NOT argue the risk associated withthis type of drinking.  Rather, I am concerned about our insistence as afield on using language to share a concern that the population we try to reachrejects as nonsensical, which therefore defeats our purpose.

I suggest that theCouncil consider these points as it prepares future copy for PSAs and othercommunity-based publications, but more than this, I suggest it also recognizethat there is more to the issue of prevention than pointing out what is notworking in our system and demonstrating that with an endless parade of reportsabout “the problem.”  Just as research is showing us that clinicalinterventions designed to meet individuals with substance use disorders (SUD) wherethey are ideologically rather than insist that they come to the clinician’sviews of substance use and treatment, and/or how the use of “strengths-based”counseling interventions motivate greater numbers of individuals with SUDs tomove towards change, so can we who are involved in prevention learn somethingby listening to what these “binge drinkers” have to tell us about the majorityof the time when they choose to drink moderately if not abstain altogether.

In this verynewsletter article on “binge drinking,” it points out that the average memberof this group drinks “4 times per month” and “8 drinks per occasion.” Again…this is very high-risk.  But the point that goes unaddressed when focusingon these factoids is that 26-days a month they do not drink and they stop at 8on those occasions when they do drink.  The question becomes, why? This is interesting information at the least and potentially very useful whenour objective is to reduce harm for both the community in which these drinkersdrink and for them as individuals.

We first need to changeour thinking about “doing prevention” if we hope to change the thinking of thepublic at large and ultimately that position of the public that “bingedrinks.”  We start this when we begin to ask, Why do those who do notdrink until 21 and those who if they do drink, do so in moderation, make thechoices they make?

What I propose isnothing short of a paradigm shift when it comes to looking at the issueaddressed in the newsletter; I appreciate this.  I also appreciate thatfact that this shift is not going to be easy as many stakeholders in preventionefforts find themselves locked into their current way of thinking, which makesany suggestions coming from outside that paradigm automatically suspect. But let me close with a simple question I use to illustrate being “stuck” inone’s own thinking when addressing this with my students:

Answer thisquestion: What color is a “yield sign”? 

Now, visit and in the search boxtype, “yield sign,” complete with quotes. 

What is thepredominate color of all the pictures that appear?

Is this what youexpected?

NOTE: If you are likemost people above the age of 30, you likely thought, “yellow”; I did.  But“yellow” has not been the color of traffic yield signs since 1971.  So whydo most people when asked this question “get it wrong”...because we are “stuckin our thinking.”  We see what we expect to see or worse yet, only lookfor evidence that supports our position and ignore everything else that doesnot.  In social psychology this is confirmationbias.

Until and unless wechange OUR thinking, we have no hope of changing the thinking of thoseindividuals we target with our programs and PSAs.

Thanks for readingto this point and allowing me to share my position.  I hope that I will beable to converse with you or other council members further.

What do you think?

Dr. Robert


Blog archive