Mind the credibility gap: 5 insights to give ‘binge drinking’ public health interventions more punch

1 Oct

In this guest post, John Isitt, Director of Insight of Resonant Media, reports on some of the key lessons learned from local work to reach at-risk drinkers beyond IBA. Many similarities were evident with recent Drinkaware research on ‘Drunken Nights Out’ – but what are the implications for local level action?

binge drinkingYoung people don’t find the public health messages on alcohol credible. Their disbelief means that 18 to 30 year old ‘binge drinkers’ dismiss messages to moderate the amount they drink, according to research we carried out for Lambeth and Southwark Councils.

Working with people who drink at increasing or higher risk levels, it’s clear that they don’t have any inherent desire to moderate their drinking. Younger drinkers believe they “know their own limit” and are secure with this knowledge, having earned it through years of drinking experience.

If we really mean to change people’s drinking behaviours, taking an insight led approach is crucial; understanding their current behaviours, their motivations for change, the environment that they live, and their capability for change. (Behaviour Change Wheel by Mitchie et al.)

Here are five insights drawn from our research that help to highlight the barriers to change, understand people’s motivations and, importantly, retain credibility of future alcohol interventions.

1. Alcohol is good – Drinking alcohol is seen to offer a number of positive benefits that are not easily available elsewhere. These include generating a general “feel good feeling”, building confidence, relieving stress and offering an escape from boredom as an ability to cope with difficult situations.

Without understanding this simple perceived truth amongst 18 to 30 year olds, interventions will fail. Simplistic messages that try to cast alcohol as the profane are dismissed, as the target audience have already tried it and realise that alcohol gives them great pleasure at little cost.

By re-labelling ‘binge drinking’ as ‘calculated hedonism’ (Szmigin et al) it’s easier to understand people’s motivations and recognise that people generally drink for a good reason. Understanding this, rather than demonising drink, means we can start working constructively ‘with the grain’ of people’s behaviour to change the way they behave towards alcohol.

2. Drinking to fit into the social norm – failure to adhere to this norm can restrict an individual’s ability to be part of a social group, whether this group comprises of work colleagues or friends.

Social and workplace cultures are key drivers for consumption. Without tackling the underlying cultures it will be very difficult for an individual to change their behaviour, even in the face of rational educational or informational messages. (For example, one young man told us about the “beer trolley” at his workplace. Starting at 4pm every Thursday and Friday the expectation was that everyone would start drinking and then move onto the pub at the end of the day.)

These bonds are incredibly powerful. Light touch health promotion – a leaflet here, or a poster there – is going to have little or no impact on these social attachments and cultural pressures.

3. Few alcohol downsides – knowledge is patchy about the impact that alcohol can have on health and wellbeing. What awareness there is, is generally limited to liver and kidney damage.

For 18 to 30 year olds, this is a sticking point as both liver and kidney issues are seen to be so far removed into the future they are not valid risk (a form of temporal discounting). In addition, they’ve heard it all before – so the risks have little impact.

Our insight showed that risks of cancer or blood clots in the brain had shock value to get their attention. But after the initial surprise, 18 to 30 year olds also want to understand the impact and short-term downsides of alcohol. And not just the serious health related issues. This group generally feels immortal – health risks that may emerge years in the future have limited sway on behaviour. Whereas more immediate, but perhaps less ‘serious’ effects may have more influence.

4. Relate it to ‘me’ and make it immediate – whatever the intervention it needs to make people stop and think with credible information that relates to them in the now. Hackneyed or vague messages will be dismissed: as participants pointed out, when everything in life seems to increase our risk of “heart disease by 10%”, an alcohol public health message saying the same thing is generally dismissed.

To have impact, any messaging (health or otherwise) needs to be tailored and specific to a particular segment of the population. A 22 year old is going to respond to different ‘risks’ or ‘benefits’ than a 52 year old. The typical young binge drinker responds better to short-term benefits and risks, and side effects that impact on their self-image.

5. Attitude – individuals believe they can “self-manage” their alcohol consumption and therefore don’t believe they require interventions, treatment or specific support. Any interventions need to “go alongside” these attitudes and not come from a position of authority, but one of personal support – working with people, not telling them what to do. More ‘why’ and ‘how’, less of ‘what’.

These insights may also give us a good indication as to why ‘IBA’ is considered much more effective than generic alcohol messages. IBA highlights an individual’s personal risk based on their own answers, and encourages a person to identify their individual reasons for change. This is why we are exploring ways to take these crucial ‘behaviour change’ elements and see if we can reach out to groups who might be unlikely to receive IBA via normal routes.

Amongst at-risk groups, it’s still going to be difficult to enact large-scale behaviour change without changing the social norms. Multiple approaches are needed to shift overall attitudes, and of course price, availability and product marketing are huge influences. However, increasingly popular ‘Dry January’ type approaches are interesting. Without demonising alcohol, they are getting larger numbers of people to try out different behaviours. The more we move away from relying on simplistic health messages, the more chance we have of seeing behaviour change amongst at-risk drinkers

John Isitt is the director of insight at Resonant Media, an independent agency specialising in achieving health and wellbeing behaviour change and efficiencies in service use. Contact him on Twitter @resonantjohn or email john@resonantmedia.co.uk

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One Response to “Mind the credibility gap: 5 insights to give ‘binge drinking’ public health interventions more punch”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Mind the credibility gap: 5 insights to give ‘binge drinking’ public health interventions more punch | Resonant Media - November 4, 2014

    […] IBA and what the implications are for local level action? The blog was first published on the Alcohol IBA Blog on 1 October […]

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